John Goodrum based on a short story by Charles Dickens
Rumpus Theatre Company
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
As evenings get longer and nights get darker, theatres tend to look to ghost stories to give audiences a fright. The onstage equivalent of a white-knuckle ride which can keep theatregoers on the edge of their seats is always popular—and 2023 seems to be continuing the tradition.
Take Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, for instance. This autumn and winter it has several “frightfully good shows”, the first of which is The Signalman, the return of John Goodrum’s adaptation of a spine-chiller by Charles Dickens.
Rumpus Theatre Company has done well out of this tale, which takes place at the bottom of a deep railway cutting in Derbyshire in 1860. It was first produced at the Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield in 1997 and this is its fifth tour in 26 years.
It succeeds because Goodrum has developed Dickens’s 1866 short story into a full-length play by delving into the back-stories of two of the three characters: Joseph Standcot, the signalman of the title, and a young man, Richard Brightwell.The signalman is haunted by a faceless figure who appears at the mouth of a railway tunnel to warn him of impending disaster. A student taking a walk discovers a signal box and strikes up a friendship with the railway worker. Both unburden themselves of their problems. The signalman reveals why he came to Derbyshire, while the young man wants to find out where his first love died in a train crash.
Goodrum played Standcot for the first time in 2018 and reprises the role here. He has lost none of the mystery associated with the character who is initially bemused at finding he has a visitor. He is initially reluctant to open up to a younger man about why he took a menial job on the railway despite being well educated. Eventually, he confesses his guilt and Goodrum credibly shows how tormented and disturbed the signalman has become by events in the tunnel.
This is the second time Pavan Maru has acted alongside Goodrum. They were both in Goodrum’s take on a G K Chesterton story, Father Brown – A Crime at Christmas, in the Classic Thriller Season at the Theatre Royal in the summer, although Maru had only a small part.
Here he shows he is adept at playing an upper-class student with a spot-on RP accent and a slightly rebellious streak. Maru quickly moves from deliriously happy at relating how youthful infatuation made him feel through sadness at his girlfriend’s demise to becoming angry with Standcot when they argue about whether anyone can lose their guilt.
Goodrum and Maru work well together, especially in the early part of the play which drags only slightly as their relationship develops.
David Gilbrook again plays the train driver, putting everything into perspective at the end as well as being in charge of the moody sound.
Karen Henson directs with a steady hand, from the impressive opening with the appearance of a thundering train accompanied by flashing lights and smoke through to the unexpected revelation at the end.
As one member audience remarked on her way out: “very clever!” She found that the play definitely sent out the right signals.
* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website