The Ghost Train
Written in 1923 by Dad’s Army regular Arnold Ridley, this talking Scarlet production brings to the stage a wonderful glimpse into yesteryear which, through the clever setting and brilliant acting, never feels dated or twee – it is a perfect pastiche of 1920’s Britain with a cross section of society placed into a very natural situation with very supernatural undertones . Over the years The Ghost Train has been billed as a horror, thriller, crime, tragi-comedy and even forerunner to the Scooby Doo style method of final twist, but I like to think of it as a perfectly timeless piece of storytelling – it would be equally at home being told round a camp fire as it is in a theatre (or even on film as the 1941 Arthur Askey version).
When a group of mismatched train passengers are stranded at a rural station overnight, they soon hear of a sinister local legend telling of a ghostly train that passes through the area, ever since a terrible accident 43 years ago. Anyone who happens to gaze upon the train will face death and disaster. When the station master is suddenly found murdered, and when a disturbed young girl arrives from the local mental hospital, the 6 passengers are thrown into further panic when they hear the roar of the approaching ghost train...
Talking Scarlet productions never fail to bring together brilliant casting which perfectly fit into the roles, enhancing the story with chemistry and believably and suspending the ‘where have I seen them before’. Led by the irrepressible Jeffrey Holland as Saul, the station master, the strength on stage and the ease in which each actor immerses themselves into their role means there is little need to take the audience through character identification. Instead we can get straight into the story.
The ever-perfect Corrinne Wicks and Ben Roddy play Elsie and Richard Winthrop; a 2nd time married couple who have hit a rough patch. Elsie strives to convince everyone, but mostly herself, that she is still a strong and independent woman, despite Richard being a very dominant, yet caring, husband. Corrine plays these parts with such integrity (she was previously at Darlington in The Holly & The Ivy in a similar role) and, despite her obvious successes in Emmerdale and Doctors, it is on the stage that you can truly appreciate her craft and skills (not to mention her beauty).
Newly wed young love birds Charles (Chris Sheridan) and Peggy (Sophie Powles) Murdock are desperately trying to get to Truro for their first night as a married couple so the inconvenience of this enforced stopover is much felt by both, though for slightly different reasons. Always aware of his duty as new husband, Charles wants to lead, to challenge, to seek out the truth but still falls back to put a protective arm round the shoulders of his blushing bride. For this, Sheridan is brilliant – torn between the machismo of youth and yet emulating Richard’s more mature approach to husbandry, he portrays the turmoil of now having another to protect perfectly.
Despite the aforementioned couples providing most of the action, it is Tom Butcher, as Teddie Deakin, who is the linchpin. Previously seen here playing the twins in talking Scarlet’s Double Death (and giving the best performance of the year), Butcher gives another masterclass in character acting – this time as a foppish, hooray Henry who seemingly takes everything with a pinch of childish wonder and never appears to grasp the gravity of the situation. He is very reminiscent of Michael Palin in some of his Monty Python roles, but even more so of Palins cameos in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Of course, with every good thriller, things are never quite what they seem and Teddie proves that you should never judge a book by its cover.
As the story is set in the 1920’s there are some cultural references, and indeed the crux of the reveal, which are dated, though not out-dated. You need to allow yourself to step back into this time to fully appreciate the writing but I believe that the best ghost and thriller stories are set in the early part of the 20th century – the world was breaking free from a class driven society giving rise to both legit and somewhat dubious entrepreneurial endeavours.
Backed by great performances throughout, a large degree of humour (not comedy) and a claustrophobic set, the story rattles along like the titular mode of transport and yet time itself seems to pass immeasurably slow with the whole tale covering less than 2 hours – it is this cleverness in the writing that helps to build the tension towards the climax. Sadly, if there was one disappointment for me then it was the final ‘reveal’ – more Scooby Doo than Edgar Allen Poe but maybe that’s just my macabre side crying out.