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Ghosts on a Wire at the Union Theatre

Take the ghostly stuff out of Ghosts on a Wire, and – setting aside the fact that it would have to be called something else – this might have been something more consistently cohesive. As it is, there are ten ‘historical figures’, as the show’s programme would have it, some of which weren’t alive at the same time. Except they all were, and perhaps still are, if one believes in ghosts.

Ghosts On A Wire. Photo by Martin Butterworth.
Ghosts On A Wire. Photo by Martin Butterworth.

The central storyline would appear to be about the City of London Electric Lighting Company Limited, which began in 1891 to supply electricity to ‘the North Bank’, as the likes of Octavia Hill (Gerri Farrell) called it, but not the part of Southwark both the play’s venue and the original site of Hill’s ‘Women’s University Settlement’, later called the Blackfriars Settlement, are located. The ‘settlements’ sought to alleviate poverty by housing low-income households and also educating them and providing recreational activities.

Sir Lyon Playfair MP (Andrew Fettes), a key figure at the electricity company (according to the play, at least) wants Hill to support the construction of Bankside Power Station, ostensibly because it would provide employment for local people. But for it to happen, an existing neighbourhood would effectively have to be demolished and its inhabitants displaced (one would hope the latter before the former). Enter William Shelfer (also Fettes), known as Will to his customers, and his wife Sarah (Ali Kemp), who run The Waterman’s Arms, the local pub. In separate scenes, it becomes clear what the electricity company’s real intentions are. Hill isn’t party to those conversations, but she’s worked out nonetheless that the power station isn’t something she wants to publicly support. Why, indeed, can’t Sir Lyon find some captain of industry or other to join his cause?

The ghosts appear in a bizarre, and slightly hilarious, scene in the first half, in the form of William Blake (Timothy Harker) and Michael Faraday (Tom Neill), who appear at a séance conducted by a Mrs Cook (also Farrell), despite not having been summoned. Blake has no idea what’s going on, and keeps asking ‘why?’ like a petulant prepubescent. The whole thing becomes quite preposterous, really, and the show loses credibility as a result. It never fully recovers, and the supernatural aspects detract from a gritty struggle between the haves and the have-nots.

The ghosts deploy what powers they have to disrupt the séance, but have zero ability to make alterations to the course of history. Harriot Yorke (Deborah Klayman) and Sarah Shelfer, Cook’s clients, interpret what goes on as they see fit. A not-so-subtle underlying message about environmentalism in the modern era repeatedly surfaces, with the play almost making Octavia Hill to be a climate activist before the days when climate activists were called climate activists. There was also a missed opportunity to talk about the legacies of the play’s characters at the end of the play: the Blackfriars Settlement is still going, whilst the Bankside Power Station has been defunct for a generation, with the building (itself a replacement of the original) now Tate Modern.

This is a surprising omission particularly given that the production is, so the programme states, “part of the Blackfriars Stories program [sic]”, which started in 2014 and is an ongoing series of events for the local community in and around Blackfriars to celebrate the area’s history and diversity. Instead, the show ends on a rather low note, with a reluctance on the ghosts’ part to say too much of ‘the future’ after Hill’s death in 1912, given that it involved World War One and the Spanish flu pandemic.

References to Mary Shelley and her novel Frankenstein could have been taken out without consequence. An unwieldy narrative would have more clarity with the benefit of a narrator. The deficiencies in the script are mitigated in this production by some excellent video designs and projections, as well as more than decent period costumes. The cast do well with what they are given: what is largely a true story is sadly marred by some very obvious untruths.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Using spectacular back projection effects and photography this is a play about the development of the world’s largest coal-powered electric plant, The Pioneer as it lit the houses and streets of the affluent North Bank of the Thames, while destroying the homes and working-class communities on the South. And one woman, Octavia Hill, who fought for the right for the ordinary people of Southwark in London to have decent homes and clean air.

Gerri Farrell as Octavia Hill
Andrew Fettes as William Shelfer
Timothy Harker as William Blake
Ali Kemp as Sarah Shelfer
Deborah Klayman as Harriot Yorke
Tom Neill as Michael Faraday

Creative team:
Writer and Producer Linda Wilkinson
Director PK Taylor
Sound Designer and Composer Jack Baxter
Photographer and Graphic Design Martin Butterworth
Artist Adrian Chappell
Projection Design (Stagefright Films) Chris Lince
Costumes Penn O’Gara

The world premiere of
Ghosts on a Wire
by Linda Wilkinson
directed by PK Taylor

21 September – 8 October, 2022
Union Theatre, London, SE1

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