In a grim rail side hut a lonesome signalman tends to his duties. An unexpected visitor, keen to learn about the signalman’s job, all but invites himself in. At first tentative and somewhat fearful, the signalman eventually relinquishes to the visitor’s request for information. The visitor, a physician looking for a quieter life, soon realises that all is not what it seems with the signalman, as he is regaled with tales of a prophetic spectre that heralds disaster. Over several visits to the hut the relationship between the signalman and the gentleman grows, as one tries to help the other to see the truth of the matter.
The Signalman, written by Charles Dickens in 1866, was part of a revival of the almost forgotten tradition of mid-winter ghost stories. While they are now thankfully becoming more common place again, they were effectively outlawed during the puritanical era of Cromwell and then began a resurgence during the Victorian period.
This ancient tradition harks back even further to the dead and dark winter months, when tales were told by the light of the fire to while away the long nights. Of pagan origin, these Yuletide stories dealt with death and rebirth, and also allowed for the reminiscence of those who were departed. It was believed that the Winter Solstice was akin to All Hallows’ Eve, when the longest night of the year offered the dead a perfect opportunity to mingle with the living.
While Dickens’ more famous and festive ghost story A Christmas Carol has received far more attention over the years, The Signalman is by far superior in its supernatural insidiousness. It plays with the audience’s fears and like all good horror allows these fears to be projected onto something else. The story being portrayed merely relays events but it is the audience who ultimately scares themselves. This is facilitated through Jane McCarthy’s wonderful adaption which plays on paranoia and susceptibility, while also acknowledging issues of social class, education, and mental health.
Any two-hander is dependent on the quality of both roles and, under the steady direction of Matthew Ralli, neither side lets the other down. Marcus Lamb plays The Gentleman to the utmost of Victorian standards; mostly restrained with just a hint of curiosity to his thinking. As the titular signalman Daniel Reardon is haunting in his words and actions; the ghastliness of his experience is evident in everything he does. The social class of the men and its impact on their relationship is enhanced through this adaptation and the perfect awkwardness between them adds both charm and humour.
The impressive set by Lisa Krugel offers two main locations; the signalman’s hut and the foreboding tunnel itself. The quaint but bleak hut is quintessentially Dickensian and has the sense of someplace long forgotten. Atmospheric lighting (Paul Doran) helps the audience move into ghostly territories and coupled with a supernatural soundscape (Carl Kennedy) there are ample scares, whether real or imagined.
Presented by the recently formed WitchWork Theatre Company with The New Theatre, The Signalman clearly demonstrates the high calibre of the team’s ability and gives an indication of magical things to come. At a time of year when sparkling pantomime tends to take over most stages, The Signalman is, ironically, a much needed darkness in the light. Its tale of subtle supernatural occurrences carries on a tradition that should be embraced and offers a hugely enjoyable evening for those who like a little bit of fright amongst the festivities.
The Signalman runs at The New Theatre, Dublin, until 15th December.
Writer: Charles Dickens, adapted by Jane McCarthy
Cast: Marcus Lamb & Daniel Reardon
Director: Matthew Ralli
Lighting Design: Paul Doran
Set Design: Lisa Krugel
Sound Design: Carl Kennedy
Costume Design: Barbara McCarthy
Stage Management: Shannon Cowan & Céin Sookram