The Ghost Train
Nottingham Theatre Royal
Summer can be a lean time for ardent theatregoers: many venues are dark and in some areas the only productions on offer are in the open air. These can turn into survival exercises because of the vagaries of the English weather.
The Theatre Royal in Nottingham discovered an alternative 17 years ago: the classic thriller season, four plays performed in rep over a four-week period.
In the past it was fairly evident that some members of Colin McIntyre's company were recruited not because of their versatility but because they were available or cheap. However, this year's troupe contains a number of actors who've worked together on Doctor Who audio plays as well as several of the more talented thriller-season veterans. The result is a cast who give a slick, enjoyable presentation of a classic tale which has been revived more times than the Flying Scotsman.
There can't be many people who don't know that Arnold Ridley, mild-mannered Private Godfrey in Dad's Army, wrote The Ghost Train which is set in the basic, cheerless waiting room at Fal Vale on the South Cornwall Joint Railway.
He penned it in the 1920s; it appears rather dated in the 21st century. But it retains the charm of the days when a man had to show a sense of decency if other people weren't to think of him as a prize ass.
McIntyre directs The Ghost Train himself. A tale of spooky happenings and a haunted waiting room isn't likely to have today's audiences hiding under their seats with fear, so he introduces parody into the production. It could have backfired but the actors resist the temptation to go too far over the top.
Andrew Fettes is spiffing as Teddy Deakin, the beastly, self-centred oik who pulled the communication cord on a train, forcing everyone to miss their connection and consigning them to a night in the waiting room. He can't take anything seriously and you wouldn't want to spend a moment longer than necessary with him because he's so obnoxious.
All the best lines involve his character. His summing-up of the passengers' predicament is "All this is dashed queer!" while Miss Bourne, the prim spinster who is exasperated with his behaviour, remarks: "You are an ill-mannered young puppy, sir!"
Maggie Stables is admirable as Miss Bourne, especially when she becomes tipsy after downing the contents of Teddy's hip flask full of brandy.
There's also an outstanding, strong performance from Jane Shakespeare as the troubled Julia Price, torn between her fear of what will surely happen and her desire to exorcise the ghosts which are threatening her sanity.
Stealing the show, though, is Nicholas Briggs as Saul Hodgkin. I've seen him in previous thriller seasons when he's played straighter roles. Here he's almost unrecognisable as the bearded, pipe-smoking stationmaster with an authentic Cornish accent. You almost take him seriously when he vividly narrates the eerie history of the station and the excuses he comes up with for not staying the night with the stranded six.
All the cast go for as many laughs as they can get and you only occasionally get the feeling they're trying just a little too hard. But let's face it - if they didn't accentuate the comedy, the play would turn out, as one of the characters said, "fearfully boring".
Topping stuff and a fine start to the season.
The thriller season continues until September 4th
Reviewer: Steve Orme