The Ghost Train
by Arnold Ridley
Directed by Patrick Kearns
A Talking Scarlet Production
Thursday 7th May, 7.45 pm
Cast in order of appearance:
Jeffrey Holland as Saul Hodgkin, stationmaster at Fal Vale station
Ben Roddy as Richard Winthrop , a businessman
Corrinne Wicks as Elsie Winthrop, his wife
Chris Sheridan as Charles Murdock, a failed businessman and newlywed
Sophie Powles as Peggy Murdock, newlywed
Judy Buxton as Miss Bourne, a teetotal spinster
Tom Butcher as Teddie Deakin
Jo Castleton as Julia Price
David Janson as Herbert Price
John Hester as John Sterling
Jolyon Young as Jackson
The Ghost Train was written by Arnold Ridley, who was later Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army. He wrote it in 1923 and it was first performed in 1925. For decades this comedy-thriller was a staple of popular theatre, and it’s a hardy perennial which like An Inspector Calls continues to work its magic. It’s the sort of play where a review should strenuously avoid revealing plot details, because the plot is so entertaining and no explanation is needed once you’re in the theatre. All I’ll say about the plot is the basic premise was later lifted by Enid Blyton in at least three full length stories.
Jeffrey Holland as the Stationmaster
The play takes place in a Cornish railway station waiting room at night. It needs to be set in 1925 too for the details to work. Costume is important, as is the set. Briefly (no plot spoilers) a group of passengers have missed their connection late at night and are stranded on a railway station in rural Cornwall on … yes, a dark and stormy night. Richard and Elsie Winthrop are a married couple in the middle of an ongoing year long row. Richard is bluff and aggressive. Elsie cool and distanced from him. Add two newlyweds on their way to their wedding night. Lovely humour here which must have been risqué for 1925 as Charles is so anxious to get to their hotel. Then there’s a teetotal spinster lady with a parrot in a cage. The stationmaster is a grumpy fellow full of dire warnings. They have been stranded because Teddy Deakin, a 1920s silly ass in plus fours (think Bertie Wooster) had pulled the communication cord on their train after losing his hat. Thus they’re stuck for the night. All is not what it seems. The stationmaster tells a ghostly tale. Teddy might not be as daft as he seemed …
A comedy thriller is always a fine line. You need to bring out the comedy, and you need there to be genuine suspense and you need sudden surprises. The shift from funny to scary requires first rate performances all round, and this production has them. The cast has that ability to judge and carry along audience reaction which is born of confidence on stage and experience. Ridley created an appealing group of characters and his lines for Teddy are reminiscent of Wodehouse. Teddy is the central comedy character. We saw The Ghost Train a few years ago, with Jeffrey Holland in the role, which is now played by Tom Butcher. Jeffrey Holland has moved to play the stationmaster. The three arrivals on the scene in the middle of the night are led by David Jansen as Herbert Price, allegedly with his sister and a doctor. Their dramatic entry is pinpointed by all three being dressed in black and white … the men in evening dress, Julia in a black dress over white stockings. The fine line comes out over the 1920s dialogue. It would be easy to drift over the line and send it up (as with Coward and Rattigan), but this production lets the comedy through as intended without any layer of pastiche, which is as it should be.
L to R: Richard Winthrop (Ben Roddy), John Sterling (John Hester) and Teddy (Tom Butcher)
We had great seats, and we saw several people we know in the audience (unusually). I listened to the pre-show and interval chatter … the appeal of Jeffrey Holland and David Janson was clear. The people in front of us were listing their TV appearances. Jeffrey Holland’s years in Hi-de-Hi and You Rang My Lord and Oh, Doctor Beeching! are represented in full on our DVD shelves and have been viewed many times. I keep saying to people that Downton Abbey is always compared to Upstairs Downstairs but also owes much to the broader take on Upstairs Downstairs in You Rang My Lord, not only a great British comedy but one that successfully broke the “half hour rule” to play at serial drama length. As we were going out, a couple were saying ‘I’d expected Jeffrey Holland to have the same accent as Spike and James Twelvetrees. But he was Cornish!’ It’s one of those moments where you have to resist saying, ‘Yes … it’s called “acting.”‘ David Janson’s TV career embraced Get Some In, ‘Allo ‘Allo and Keeping Up Appearances. I’ll modestly add that he also played Kevin Smith in our first two video series A Weekend Away and A Week By The Sea , an internationally loved character by English language learners, so it was a joy to see him on stage, in a totally different role. Tom Butcher brought discussion of The Bill and Doctors.
It was an excellent and enjoyable evening at Poole, and as our eighth play in a fortnight, it started us discussing theatre more generally. British Theatre needs more touring productions of this high quality to build and maintain a regular theatre going audience in the provinces. The audience for mainstream well-done theatre is breaking up because there isn’t enough of it. Ten years ago we’d get the season brochure for Poole and there’d be a “6 for 4” deal of some kind. You’d choose three immediately, then say, ‘That one too. We might as well add two more.’ So you’d end up with six over the winter and the theatre habit was established. Most importantly you broaden your taste by making up the four to six. Now, if you look back at the archives of provincial theatres, fewer productions are coming through, and the three day run is fast replacing the six day (or twelve day) run
So what’s wrong with the state of theatre? London for starters is hoovering up too much money. Let’s take three examples. King Lear at the National in 2014 had over TWENTY non-speaking extras as knights and soldiers. It’s a play about an old man on a blasted heath. How much provincial theatre could be supported by slimmingthat highly-subsidised production? Check out how many tiers of membership the National Theatre has. To get decent seats, you need to be high on the totem pole.
Then take American Buffalo starring Damian Lewis, John Goodman, Tom Sturridge. West End. Cast of three. Seats at £65 to £75. Celebrity theatre at swingeing prices compared to the less than £20 for the best seats and a cast of eleven last night. Then let’s take Carmen Disruption at the Almeida. Also low, subsidised prices there, but the play itself was, not to put too fine a point on it (production and performance were brilliant), convoluted and pretentious.
The theatrical production elite might not like it, but the theatre habit rests on traditions. First taking kids to pantomimes every year. Then as they get older, some musicals, and dance theatre. We thoroughly enjoyed Little Shop of Horrors with a 9 year old and an 11 year old last week. Then you get the school trip Shakespeare. Hopefully something that’s surprisingly funny and exciting. Then … but then you have to establish a habit that live theatre is an enjoyable night out. That has to rest on well-performed tried and tested popular plays.
Like The Ghost Train. It works. The audiences come out. Everyone’s smiling after a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
First rate. £3 instead of the usual four. No adverts. No histories of London theatres. No meaningless “in rehearsal” photos. Clear uncramped layout, good space for bios.