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The Signalman by Charles Dickens at the Old Red Lion Theatre

The Signalman - Credit Elee Nova
The Signalman – Credit Elee Nova

A Christmas Carol is a permanent fixture of Christmas theatre so it is a surprising and very welcome change to find instead a production of his powerful short story The Signalman at the Old Red Lion Theatre, on tour after an initial run at Clapham’s Bread and Roses Theatre.

First published in 1866 and memorably adapted for BBC television in 1976, the story is set largely in an isolated railway signal-box. Rather than stage Dickens’ introspective story as a one-man show, as others have done, the scriptwriter Martin Malcolm has replaced the unnamed narrator of the original by a minor character from another of Dickens’ works. It is an interesting idea but one that makes little sense as ‘Joe the crossing sweeper’ would never be working near a railway line. More significantly, as the character is virtually wordless, the silent reactions of ‘Joe’ to the story recounted by the lonely signalman are simply distracting. ‘Joe’ is played by Helen Baranova, here looking sad, here looking scared. Baranova’s acting is not at fault; it is the concept. As the Signalman, Tim Larkfield is very effective – bar an accent that drifts into mockney, that over-familiar way of conveying a working class character. Haunted by sounds that only he can hear and by memories of what he has seen, Larkfield and his expressive eyes chart the signalman’s nightmare to its inevitable ending.

But the flaws outweigh the positives. The script is very, very wordy. The characters spend too much time looking off stage. Yet there are times when this ponderous production flickers into life. The opening tableau of smoke and light. And the real ending, which is quite sublime and beautifully lit and acted by Larkfield. However, it comes after a false ending and that lessens its impact. Another moment comes at one of the times when the actors move to a different part of the stage and, again thanks to a well-designed and executed lighting effect, there seems to be someone – or something – else there, a shadow signalman dogging the track of the real one. While much about the show doesn’t work, the lighting design – by Tyrian Purple – is very effective and the moments when the storytelling becomes immersed in the atmosphere are incredibly effective. But moments aren’t enough. Surgery to the script, more nimble direction and a rethink of the concept are required.

2 gold stars

Review by Louis Mazzini

A signalman is haunted by a mysterious figure standing at the mouth of a train tunnel. He’s sure it’s a warning – but what is it warning against?

The Signalman was Charles Dickens’ final completed work, written after the writer himself had survived a train crash. This adaptation by Martin Malcolm (‘Warped’ – VAULT Festival 2019) remains faithful to the original text but also incorporates other aspects of Dickens’ writing, including the introduction of Joe the crossing sweeper, who listens as the signalman’s tale unfolds.

The story was famously adapted by the BBC in the 1970s as one of the popular Ghost Stories for Christmas, starring Denholm Elliott as the signalman.

Paragon Theatre Collective presents:
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Martin Malcolm

The Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, Islington, EC1V 4NJ
10th of December 2019 – 4th of January 2020


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