Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 13th February, 2014
The best format for ghost stories is the written word. Just the reader alone with the story – no one can scare you like you can scare yourself, and writers like M R James and Charles Dickens know how to tickle your imagination until you get a shiver down your spine.
Next best is tales around a campfire – a good storyteller can convey atmosphere and suspense and make you jump. Long-running hits like The Woman In Black and, recently returned for its second West End run, the brilliant Ghost Stories, fully exploit this. These shows employ aspects of narrative theatre that address the audience’s imagination directly. And very scary they are too.
Middle Ground Theatre Company does not take this narrative approach, opting instead for naturalism and keeping the audience safely behind the fourth wall. In doing so, the company makes a rod for its own back. Unlike film, where you can use close-ups and changing points of view, the stage is a much harder place on which to create tension and atmosphere. It doesn’t help that one of the stories in this double bill relies on atmosphere more than anything for its chills and surprises.
Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad tells of a Professor Parkins (Jack Shepherd) who checks into a hotel on a storm-battered East coast, out of season to play some golf and to root around in a local archaeological site. He buddies up with Colonel Wilson (Terrence Hardiman) with whom he discusses his scepticism with regard to all things supernatural. He has found an old whistle, the blowing of which seems to conjure the wind. The whistle bears an inscription, “Who is it who is coming?” and the scene is set for some creepy palaver with moving bedclothes, knocking doors and a bush tapping incessantly on the windowpane. Eventually, the prof is reduced to a sobbing, terrified mess. And that’s it. People expecting explanations are left decidedly nonplussed. I think Margaret May Hobbs’s adaptation hits all the plot points of the M R James story but, given the absence of a resolution, a narrative theatre approach might engage the audience better. The special effects are rather good – apart from the face of the ghost projected large enough to fill the backdrop. Otherwise, the stage technology conspires to give some spine-tingling moments – despite one woman in the audience laughing her face off somewhat inappropriately.
The Signalman fares better. Shepherd in the title role is paired with Hardiman again and tells him tales of railway disasters and spooky comings and goings. This story-telling sets us up nicely for what transpires and there is a proper surprise denouement that rounds it off neatly. A more conventional ghost story, then, and Francis Evelyn’s adaptation of Dickens works a good deal better than the James.
Shepherd is very good as the eccentric professor who loses his wits and equally solid as the signalman. Hardiman is spot on as the bluff old colonel and as the inquisitive traveller. There is excellent support from Dicken Ashworth as the hotel boss and a railway inspector. With a lesser cast, these dramatisations would fall completely flat.
Director and designer Michael Lunney goes all out to create a sense of period, place and atmosphere, although I would say his set for the hotel in Whistle is a little too crowded. The set for Signalman is impressive and Bob Hodges’s excellent sound designs do most of the work in creating mood in both pieces, but on the whole I came away thinking less would be considerably more. There are too many ‘bells and whistles’ in addition to those that feature in the stories. A darkened space with someone holding a torch under his chin is as good a starting place as any – anything else is gravy.