Review: Classic Ghosts (Floral Pavilion, New Brighton)

 

I read the other day that this is the last week of the ‘meteorological winter’, which apparently runs from December 1st to the end of February. Classic Ghosts, a spine-tingling double bill of supernatural tales, arrives just in time then for a week of chilling performances at the Floral Pavilion.

The two plays (performed either side of the interval) are based on short stories, both classics of the genre: Charles Dickens’s The Signalman and M R James’s Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. They’re also stories which have in the past both been adapted for television by the BBC (in the case of Oh, Whistle twice, with Michael Hordern and later John Hurt in the lead role).

For these productions the group of actors – who appear in both plays – are headed by Jack Shepherd, whose long and distinguished career includes the title role in the TV detective series Wycliffe. He’s ably supported by Terrence Hardiman (a strong character actor known for his television appearances as The Demon Headmaster and in Cadfael) and Dicken Ashworth, a familiar face from Emmerdale and Coronation Street.

The evening kicks off with Oh, Whistle, the story of a solitary university professor (played by Jack Shepherd) who while on holiday comes across an ancient whistle. He’s outwardly a self-assured if socially awkward fellow, but strange forces are awakened when he blows the whistle, and he finds himself steadily overtaken by a terrifying psychological ordeal. Shepherd also takes the lead in the second play as the eponymous signalman. In contrast to Oh, Whistle’s bookish academic he’s an ordinary working man, and Shepherd plays him with a convincing rural accent. But both are lonely, troubled figures, in the signalman’s case haunted by premonitions of impending disaster on an isolated stretch of railway line.

The plays go well together, linked by the idea of individuals driven by irrational but all too real fears to the edge of madness. Jack Shepherd gives two very effective performances, conveying the helpless bewilderment of characters who find themselves experiencing psychological disintegration. Terrence Hardiman is similarly excellent in both plays, as a bluff colonel in Oh, Whistle and a sympathetic, well-meaning walker who tries to help Shepherd’s character in The Signalman.

The sets and the special effects combine to make both plays very atmospheric. For Oh, Whistle, the bleakness of an out of season Edwardian seaside resort is evoked by a backdrop displaying moving images of a desolate seashore, and these are also cleverly used to reinforce the supernatural theme. The set for the Signalman includes the huge mouth of a railway tunnel, the cavernous darkness creating a sense of an unknown but ever-present threat.

The plays are perhaps not always quite as frightening as they’re meant to be, but when you add to the above ghostly figures that appear out of nowhere and the sounds of storms, rattling windows and speeding trains, it all adds up to a very enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Classic Ghosts continues at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton until Saturday, 28 February 2015. For more information visit the Floral Pavilion website.