Comedy, frights, and a very English slice of theatre: The Ghost Train steams in at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, writes Kevin Anderson.
The story behind the story is well worth knowing. Long before winning the hearts of the nation in Dad’s Army, Arnold Ridley was an actor struggling for work, and scribbling endless playscripts through the night hours above his father’s shop.
Rather like Franz Kafka, in fact, without the angst but a good deal more audience-friendly.
The Ghost Train, the script that made it to the stage, was inspired by Ridley’s own improbable rail journey to see his sweetheart each weekend, from Birmingham to Bath, with a long overnight wait at isolated Mangotsfield Station.
Ah, Mangotsfield. Betjeman would have written a poem about it, but a pretty depressive one.
And thus the curtain rises, on a waiting room as forlorn and shabby as any in Britain. Flickering gaslight, a dying fire and nothing to eat – not even a British Rail sandwich curling at the edges.
Geoff Gilder’s set is actually a little spare and devoid of trappings, but it offers a suitably bleak welcome to the six travellers stranded for the night here in remotest Cornwall.
The Stationmaster – an effortlessly masterful Jeffrey Holland – can offer them only cold comfort and a chilling tale to unnerve them all.
Now, gentle audience members, this is the moment to envelop yourselves in the smoky gloom. For you have to meet this play halfway.
If you happen to have seen it before in a previous production, find a way to wipe your memory. Let your suspicion become fear become terror, and a fiendish plot (sorry, no spoilers here) will keep you on edge and hugely entertained.
Yes, of course it’s a period piece, with some quite creaky dialogue. But it’s still proper theatre, with a proper full cast – no doubling – and a proper, involving story.
Patric Kearns’ direction squeezes out every twist and thrill, and the cast are all right on top of their characters.
Ben Roddy and Corrinne Wicks are the frayed married couple: the bombastic and the caustic in perfect balance.
Jo Castleton is a lovely histrionic vamp and Judy Buxton is the delightfully dotty Miss Bourne, the teetotaller floored by her first taste of brandy.
Judy’s own distinguished acting career actually includes the definitive Old Vic production (with stationmaster Wilfrid Brambell) in the late 1970s, when she must have been the merest slip of a thing playing naïve newlywed Peggy – the character recaptured beautifully here by Sophie Powles, and perfectly paired with Chris Sheridan’s Charles, who would fight off crocodiles to save her, never mind the odd ghost on Platform One.
Oddball and upper-class twit Teddie Deakin (Tom Butcher) is a perfect characterisation, right down to his plus-fours. He has the audience chuckling with body language and facial expressions that hint of Michael Palin – the comic actor, that is, if not the Great Railway traveller!
David Janson, John Hester and Jolyon Young give sound support.
Nothing deep and meaningful, but old-fashioned in the nicest sense: a jolly good show from Talking Scarlet.
Ghost Train continues until Saturday, April 25.