Directed by Michael Lunney
Middle Ground Theatre Company
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Monday 14th April 2014
This was a double bill. The first play was an adaptation by Margaret May Hobbs of M R James’ short story Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, accompanied by The Signalman, adapted by Francis Evelyn from the story by Charles Dickens. We’ve enjoyed M R James’ work before – A Pleasing Terror and A Warning To The Curious were both good, chilling fun – and we were keen to see how this tale would work adapted into a play; the earlier performances were both narrations of the stories.
Before the start, all we could see of the set was a small corner in front of the curtain on the left of the stage; covered in sand and with one or two stones and tufts of sea-grasses, we were already at the beach even without the additional sounds of waves breaking and seagulls calling. When the curtain rose, the set was revealed, and it was a masterpiece of design. To the right was a bedroom with cutaway walls. It had two single beds, a bay window and other suitable items of furniture, plus a cupboard on the far right wall. On the left of this room was the reception area of the hotel, with the desk partially hidden behind two bucket seats and a table; there were also French windows with lace curtains beside the reception desk. At the back was a very large screen which showed a picture of a shingle beach throughout the play; sometimes a daytime setting, sometimes at night. This and the lighting helped to change the locations and times for the various scenes and was very effective.
Set in autumn 1907, the story concerned Professor Parkins who was visiting the coastal resort out of season to play some golf with his friend Colonel Wilson as well as seeing some of the local historical sites. He had been asked by another friend to check out one site in particular, a place connected with the Knights Templar which was now a ruin. In fact, it was so far gone the friend wasn’t sure if it was worth coming to excavate it or not, and Prof Parkins had agreed to have a look and report back. This turned out to be the sandy area at the front of the stage, and after rummaging about in it for a short while, the professor left, but not before seeing a figure which appeared on the screen, down on the beach. It was cloaked and hooded, and after walking a short way along the beach it simply vanished – spooky!
This eerie apparition didn’t deter the professor from checking out his only find from his short exploration – an old wooden or bone whistle. There was a Latin inscription on it which he eventually managed to decipher, something along the lines of “When I whistle, who comes?” Being a fervent rationalist – he had quite a rant about the importance of overcoming superstition to the Colonel – he naturally blew the whistle, and after one attempt which didn’t make much sound, his second go produced a good loud blast, and instantly the wind rose, the lights went out and the French windows were thrown open by the gale.
Even with these warnings, Parkins was determined not to be scared, and went to bed laughing at the absurdity of it all. During the night, he had a nightmare, and the pictures on the screen showed us the contents of his dream. He was running along the beach, tripping and falling occasionally, and clearly terrified judging by the screaming we could hear. After his figure left the beach on the right, the hooded figure appeared on the left and walked along the beach after him, but again it disappeared before going very far. At this point, there was a clamour in the cupboard, as someone (or something) knocked loudly and rattled the door. Parkins got up, rather nervously, and opened the door – it was the cat! As he gathered the recalcitrant pussy in his arms and took it outside, the door to the cupboard and the door to the room both shut, and we could see the covers of the second bed slide back as if somebody was getting in.
The next day there was another round of golf and this time the Colonel was doing much better. (The first round had gone Parkins’ way through an amazing accumulation of flukes – this was the way the Colonel told it anyhow.) On returning late to the hotel, the warning signs began to mount up rapidly. The second bed still looked slept in, although the maid, Rose, had previously made it up. She had also seen the Professor (or so she thought) wave to her from his window earlier in the day when he was out playing golf with his friend. Despite this, the Professor was still happy to spend the night in that room but again his sleep was disturbed by a knocking from the cupboard, only this time there was no cat. Nothing at all in fact, so he picked up a book and began to read by the light of the oil lamp.
Suddenly the lights went out, and as he tried to relight it, a figure appeared over his shoulder and blew the match out. I had been expecting something – I was already holding on to Steve by this time – but the timing and the nearness of the ghost were startling all the same. The whole audience gasped, and then laughed with relief a few moments later. Meantime, Parkins had lit another match and got the lamp going again. As he looked around, the form appeared again in some wispy smoke, and as he confronted it we saw the ghost’s face looming large on the screen at the back. As Parkins screamed, the Colonel rushed in and rescued him, and the figure vanished into air.
The story ended with the Colonel taking the recuperating Parkins out in his wheelchair along the beach for some fresh air. Having been convinced that the whistle had something to do with all these strange happenings, the Colonel very sensibly decided to throw it into the sea, but as he did so, there was a booming sound and the screen at the back rippled as if space itself was being distorted by this act. With the two men’s startled looks, the play ended.
This was a nicely creepy start to the double bill. I liked the staging very much; it allowed for quick changes of location and the effects were very well done. This adaptation also brought out more of the humour in the story. I’ve found the narrated versions to be good fun, with some lovely touches of dry wit in Robert Lloyd Parry’s delivery, but this time we could enjoy the humour in the performances as well and there was more of that than I expected. The porter wasn’t impressed by the Professor’s tips and let us know it, Fitch, the hotel manager, was equally unimpressed by the Professor’s idea of “roughing it” in his hotel, but was quick to replace the Professor’s untouched brandy back in the decanter when clearing up for the night, as well as tucking the unused portion of the Colonel’s brandy in himself. The “bath rota” also caused a few laughs, and overall it was a deft production, bringing out both the humour and the chilling aspects of the story.
There were lots of noises coming from behind the curtain after Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad finished. Initially, the safety curtain stopped a short way above the stage, and a pair of disembodied hands (how appropriate) threw a cover over the sand trap at the front. Then the curtain came all the way down and the set change could really get underway. Just in case we felt lonely (or perhaps in case we regained our courage) the accompanying noises included the raucous cawing of crows and the wind whistling across some bleak landscape, as well as various odd thumping sounds – very atmospheric.
It was worth it though. The set for the second part of this double bill was very good, with the signalman’s hut on the right, the tunnel entrance centre back and a pair of tracks coming straight towards me! The usual red warning light was hung on the left of the tunnel, and there was the suggestion of trees and undergrowth about the place.
I hadn’t re-read my notes from 2009 before we saw this version of the story, but I was still pretty confident from an early stage that this retelling was very different from the one we’d seen before. The visitor was an older man for one thing, while in the earlier production he’d been much younger. This was a shorter play as well, so we missed a lot of the signalman’s story about people drowning because he’d been too drunk to keep a light going. Even so, the tension built nicely with the occasional ringing of the signalman’s bell and the changing of the lights and points, and when the visitor had left, promising to return the next night, we also saw the apparition – a light image projected against the side of the tunnel entrance.
We didn’t see so many trains this time round, just one or two, and again this was done by having a few lights shine across the signalman’s face as the train went past. There were also some eerie musical sounds accompanied by smoke coming through the tunnel, which tied up with those occasions when the signalman looked outside to see if the vision was present.
The only change to the set was when a table and chair were brought on for the traveller to write a letter to his doctor friend regarding the signalman. I don’t know why they went to the trouble to include that bit, because by the time the traveller had returned to the signal box, his new friend was dead. The apparition had appeared again, and the signalman had been so shaken by the sight that he failed to get out of the way of an oncoming train and was killed immediately. The body was lying on a stretcher when the traveller arrived, and an Inspector was in the process of finding out what had happened. As the train driver told his tale, it turned out that the vision had been showing the driver’s actions before the collision. To top it all off, it turned out that the signalman had been involved in an earlier crash where he’d been meant to show a light to stop any oncoming train, but due to a lack of correct planning, he’d been unable to prevent the disaster.
The traveller’s mind was reeling with all this information, and the play ended with his amazed and shocked reaction to the Inspector’s final revelation about the signalman’s past. Not as much humour in this one perhaps, but we’d still enjoyed ourselves, and the audience was very appreciative.
© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me