Review: The Signalman
Image: Old Red Lion Theatre
Tim Larkfield - The Signalman
Helen Baranova - Joe the crossing sweeper
A signalman is haunted by a mysterious figure standing at the mouth of a train tunnel.
He's sure it's a warning - but what is it warning against?
The Signalman was Charles Dickens's final completed work, written after the writer himself had survived a train crash.
This adaptation by Martin Malcolm ('Warped' - VAULT Festival 2019) remains faithful to the original text but also incorporates other aspects of Dickens's writing, including the introduction of Joe the crossing sweeper, who listens as the signalman's tale unfolds.
The story was famously adapted by the BBC in the 1970s as one of the popular Ghost Stories for Christmas, starring Denholm Elliott as the signalman.
This is a rare chance to catch Charles Dickens' chilling story of a railway signalman (played by Tim Larkfield) haunted by an apparition which seems to repeatedly warn of impending disaster.
The problem for the signalman is how to decode the warnings he believes he is being given.
The story first appeared in the 1866 Christmas edition of the periodical 'All the Year Round', owned by the great writer himself.
The timing and nature of that debut may well have cemented the link between the story and the festive season which is often associated with ghostly stories, so it's an apt kind of show to find its way in to the schedules at this time of year.
In nineteenth century Victorian England railway accidents were fairly commonplace and Charles Dickens found himself a victim of one of them in the summer of 1865 when travelling through Kent, perhaps inspiring his creative genius to write this story.
(From left) Helen Baranova (Joe) and Tim Larkfield (Signalman) - photo by Elee Nova
Martin Malcolm's well-worked adaptation of Dickens' tale remains pretty faithful to the original, but introduces the character of Joe the crossing sweeper - well played by Helen Baranova - who listens silently (almost dumbfoundedly) to the Signalman's unfolding tale and adding an interesting layer to the overall narrative.
Tim Larkfield's well-described signalman is an ordinary, down-to-earth kind of soul who understands the depth of responsibility his work involves.
He's also suffered personal tragedy as well as witnessing the horrific reality of disaster on the railway, as he tells us right at the start of the show.
His experiences and lonely working conditions make him ripe for unnerving warnings from ghostly apparitions.
Sam Raffal's capably directed production certainly has sufficient atmosphere to keep the audience absorbed - and there are a couple of startling moments that have the appropriate effect on them.
Even so, the show falls just a little short of having us truly on the edge of our seats or nudging us into the realms of the truly hair-raising.
Running at just under the hour mark, this is a show that offers something a little different from the pantos that dominate the festive calendar and one that may well add an extra dimension or a different flavour to a night out with friends.
There's also a rarity value about the piece and it will no doubt appeal to devoted fans of Dickens' work - all of which make the show worth a visit.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Old Red Lion Theatre
Our show listing for The Signalman
Read our reviews' policy