The Ghost Train
Ian Dickens production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
The writer, having served in two world wars, is ironically best known for his portrayal of the genial but weak-bladdered Private Godfrey in the popular seventies sitcom Dads Army. He reputedly wrote this play during the four hours he was stranded at Mangotsfield station, near Bristol. I am not familiar with the station, but it must be a dark and gloomy place to have inspired this ghostly comedy thriller.
First performed on stage in 1925, it was an immediate success and ran for six hundred and sixty three performances, and two years later was followed by the first of several film adaptations. The subject lends itself well to visual filming technique, something that the original German director used to the full with his experience of silent films. As a very small child I was taken by some older cousins to see one of the subsequent films. Not a good idea said my mother, she will be frightened. Oh no she wont! said the cousins. Mother was right!
Many years later I can still see and hear that train as it rushed through the night with an eerie shriek, a difficult scene to produce on stage but they achieve this extremely well. The scene is the bleak waiting room of a small rural station, meticulously constructed, and the light, noise and smoke (courtesy of David North) seen through the windows are frightening enough without needing to actually see a train.
The passengers stranded here for the night are an argumentative man and wife working up to a divorce, a loving couple newly married and an elderly spinster complete with caged bird, all having missed their connection due to some silly ass pulling the communication cord because his hat had blown off, and this silly ass in the shape of Stephen Beckett overacts outrageously camping it up and given to asinine laughter. All way over the top and extremely irritating until the reason for it all is revealed in Act Two. Even so, still very overdone in my opinion, but Ian Dickenss direction does tend to veer towards the farcical.
With a comedy thriller it must be a difficult choice to know whether to play up the comedy or the thrills, and Dickens has endeavoured to do both with limited success. Attempts to build up the tension are undermined by the comic interventions. The most frightening moments in the evening, apart from the train, are the sudden piercing and strident screams from Julie Buckfield as sweet and clinging young bride Peggy, relying on her new husband (Oliver Stoney) to protect her.
Zoe Springbett gives a crisp, no nonsense delivery as the modern young woman who can look after herself until tested and Wendy Morgan is blatantly melodramatic in another over the top performance with her portrayal of the disturbed young girl who is drawn to the dangerous ghost train - but again all is explained in the conclusion when the reasons for the ghostly phenomenon are revealed.
Victor Spinetti excels as the old station master warning of the spectral dangers to be faced if the passengers stay in the haunted station overnight, and produces a very authentic Cornish accent. Estelle Collins convinces as the spinster lady, but spends most of the play asleep having imbibed too much brandy to calm her nerves.
As a comedy thriller it is quietly amusing and mildly thrilling, but entertaining enough and now, at the Yvonne Arnaud, very appropriate for Halloween.
Touring Barnstaple and Darlington.
This review was first published in Theatreworld Internet Magazine
Reviewer: Sheila Connor