The Ghost Train
by Arnold Ridley
directed by Doreen Cockshott
Your choice of play to open the new season was written in 1923. It was good to see it again and realise that there are companies dedicated, and brave enough to present such plays to be enjoyed by modern audiences. Written by dear old Arnold Ridley – the ancient, Private Godfrey in “Dad’s Army” – it is full of comedy, suspense and drama; and tension and challenge for the cast. The characters all have stories to tell at a time – the twenties – when much was going on historically, and when getting imprisoned in a rundown station waiting-room, with ghostly trains thundering through, hardly helps the cast to have a good night’s sleep.
The empty stage revealed the station waiting room and, even when empty, it was redolent of a former, bygone era and seemed to have an eerie spirit hanging over it. There was a door to the platform USC, an office door and a ticket flap SR. A large fireplace filled SL and a wooden table, benches and chairs dotted around. No way could the word comfort have a place in this description, but then its function was as a place to wait between trains, and not to stay any length of time, but as it turned out, our cast t would have to do when they became magically locked in. The walls of green and a mottled colour certainly added to the atmosphere. Well done.
Adam Wright had to read in the part of the station master, literally overnight, owing to sudden indisposition. So, well done to him, and the cast, for coping with the enforced pressure. It really only affected Act I as the story takes care of the unfortunate station master before Act II. Most of Act I is concerned with setting the scene – the passengers’ backgrounds; the ghost story behind the appearance of the phantom train and the dire results; what’s to be done with the passengers now; and a general building up of atmosphere and tension as the plight of the passengers grows to the point when the station master locks up and goes home, virtually leaving them to make the best of it - or does he? I would have liked a little more projection from the cast even though, for much of the act, their function is mainly a listening and reacting one, allowing for the unforeseen circumstances of the last night.
Act II started with the proverbial “bang” and positively rocketed along for the rest of the night. Thrillers are amongst the most difficult plays to perform. Writers naturally are concerned with the intricacies of the play rather than characterisation, particularly for minor roles. Added to this, the characters have often to behave unnaturally to provide the necessary twists and turns needed. This is certainly true with this play where humour, as well as drama, are integral parts of the unbelievable situation. This places a burden on actors and directors who have, in consequence, to sort out what the characters are like in everyday life, in addition to the required behaviour for the exceptional circumstances that the play puts them in. Doreen did an exceptional job in this area – as did her cast especially from Act II onwards, when other characters became involved and other matters, apart from ghost trains, took over.
From Act II onwards till the end, your production became a totally different play. I am not going to describe in detail what specifically took place from this point onwards because, if I did, it could spoil for some readers yet to see an actual production of the wonderful old play, the quite incredible twists and turns yet to happen. Actors have stories to reveal, lights to go on and off; doors to lock and unlock themselves at will; trains thunder through; fusillades of shots ring out; characters are not what they seem; unseen voices bellow out, and a character sleeps through it all.
Adam Wright tking over the role of Saul, the station master, at the latest possible moment virtually helped to save the last night, although everyone on and off stage went that extra mile to help Adam, and to create the successful evening that it was. Frank Oates played passenger, Richard Winthrop, and Lara Daintree, his wife, Elsie. They both brought their experience and ability to bear, and were towers of strength and maturity when decisions were needed. They spread a feeling of always being there when needed.
Roy and Sarah Eckersley played newly-weds, Charles and Peggy Murdock, and there was a warm feeling of togetherness about their characterisations and, “why were we involved in a situation like this when we have only just got married?” Barbara Williamson played Miss Bourne and, here again, we were watching experience at work. When she spoke we just had– not just to listen – but to pay attention, because her vivid characterisation made us. How she feigned sleep for so long with so much going on around her on an uncomfortable wooden table is her secret, but it says much for sheer dramatic ability. James Eckersley was Teddie Deakin, always there, whether wanted or not, with a spirited, diverse, expressive variety of hand movements, and a solution to most situations. He played Teddie with a joyous good humour and was most impressive later on with his deliberate refusal to leave with the others. Of course, there were depths of which we were not aware. Anita Partridge, playing Julia Price, gave a performance of true dramatic strength and power. Pace, which seemed to have speeded up with the events happening in early Act Two, now positively charged along even faster with Anita’s entrance, and she kept up the intensity throughout. Her natural realism of movement and dialogue lit up the stage. A character of extremes, she was convincing in all she did and said. It is such a difficult part to sustain, but that is what she did.
Jeanette Thornley was Cynthia, Julia’s sister, who had come to look for her. She was very convincing, particularly when angry or in disagreement. Her disguise at the end was ingenious, and she played her character well. Gary Blair was John Sterling, who professed to be a doctor and was obviously a good man to have around when things started to happen. His portrayal was sensitively and naturally played. It was sensitive because we believed he was that sort of man – loyal, dependable, undemanding. It was later we began to have our doubts. Peter Dronsfield was a policeman, but remember, there are no unimportant parts in the theatre. All have their point and their place.
As director, Doreen Cockshott masterminded this production and that is what this old favourite needs. She welded a joyous group of actors into a successful team which gave the audience an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Team spirit and playing for each other throughout, it is not an easy play to do, with so much required from offstage as well. Congratulations, Doreen, and well done to all involved on, and off, stage.
Happy playmaking and thank you for your welcome and hospitality.