Classic Ghosts – April 2014

Experience: 7/10

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.

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The Haunting – November 2012


Adapted from the ghost stories of Charles Dickens by Hugh James

Directed by Hugh Wooldridge

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 20th November 2012

Another splendid adaptation of Dickens tonight, this time by Hugh James. He’s taken Dickens’ various ghost stories, plus some atmospheric bits from the novels, and blended them into a really creepy evening’s entertainment, complete with special effects. For an audience used to compelling 3D CGI in films nowadays, it may seem a bit tame, but I found it tremendously scary – Steve’s hand is expected to make a full recovery. The performances were very good, and although some of the lighting effects seemed a bit strange, the story was so well told that I was gripped from the start.

I won’t give too much away (I hope). The two-person story concerned a young man, David Filde (James Roache) and an older one, Lord Gray (David Robb). Lord Gray had recently succeeded to the title after the death of his father, and he was back in England to wrap up the estate and sell off the remaining assets – the books, the house, etc. – so that he could clear his father’s debts and return to India, where he had established himself as a businessman. David Filde was the nephew of the book dealer who had sold the late Lord Gray many of the books which lined his study walls, and having been trained in the same business, had been sent by his uncle to catalogue and remove the books for sale. After a short while, David began to hear strange sounds, a voice asking him to “help me” and the like, and with only four days left before Lord Gray returned to India, the pressure soon mounted to unravel the mystery in time.

The set was detailed and elaborate. It represented the study where the older Lord Gray had spent much of his time, with a bedroom off it in which he had actually died. There was a surprising amount of humour in this production, and the current Lord Gray’s casual reference to the fact that the bed young David would be sleeping in was the one his father had died in was one of the early laughs. From the right: tall double doors to the hall, bookcases with steps up to them, a small dais in front of the central French windows where stood the desk with an armchair on the audience side, a large globe on a stand in the corner, the double doors to the bedroom, and more book shelves surrounding the fireplace. A portrait of the late Lord Gray hung over the fireplace, and there was a very strong resemblance to his son. Another armchair stood beside the fire, and there was the skeleton of a tree outside the windows, which were smeared with age. The room had fallen into such neglect that it had lost part of the roof – a chandelier lay front right on the floor, draped with cobwebs and dust. At the top of the walls were some broken planks, and a thick film of dust with cobweb trim was visible on most of the books. As the play progressed, and David sorted out more of the books, gaps appeared on the shelves and a couple of packing cases materialised near the doors to the hall.

The effects were not too surprising – books falling off shelves and doors opening and closing on their own and suchlike – but they were well used, and the plot unfolded with masterful skill. We had some ideas at the interval, and weren’t completely off the mark as it turned out, but there was plenty still to learn in the second half and the revelations were well done. The final scene put a whole new slant on the events we’d seen, and we were very happy with our evening’s thrills and chills.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Black Veil – March 2011

Rating: 5/10

By: John Goodrum, based on a short story by Charles Dickens

Directed by: Bruce James

Venue: Connaught Theatre, Worthing

Date: Friday 4th March 2011

This production was by the same team that gave us The Signalman back in 2009. We both felt this wasn’t such a good adaptation; in particular, the opening scene was too long-winded, with the veiled lady going on at great length about her distress while not actually getting round to explaining her concerns. I admit to nodding off during this scene, but Steve brought me up to speed at the interval.

The set was a bit sparse, even for a touring production, and perhaps part of the problem was that the open nature of the acting space reduced the atmosphere. In any case, the second half worked better for us once the third character turned up and the plot began to unravel nicely.

The story was simple enough to begin with. A young doctor gets a visit late at night from an elderly, frail lady who is wearing  thick black veil. She has come to the doctor for help, but claims that he can’t actually do anything. Instead of turfing her out, he insists on getting involved, and agrees to come to her lodgings the next morning even though it will be too late, the man she wants him to help is already dead! From various clues, it sounds as though the man she’s talking about – her son – is due to be executed, but it’s never made clear (at least not while I was awake). We do find out that the young doctor, whose practice hasn’t got going yet, which is why he’s keen to accept any patient at all, was engaged to be married to a young woman, but called it off when he saw how she treated her bedridden mother. He had since become engaged to another lady, and was only waiting to establish his medical practice and earn a decent income before he can marry her, as he  has to obtain her brother’s approval.

The next day, he arrives very early at the hard-to-find address down by the docks. The woman brings him in, but doesn’t show him the ‘patient’ right away. There’s a short pause, and then she leads him up to the bedroom where a man lies on the bed. He appears to have been hung, and life is quite extinct. Then things take a turn for the worse, as a violent thug arrives, banging on the door demanding to be let in. The woman explained that this thug was responsible for her son’s death. The two men had become involved in some burglary, and during it a security guard was killed. Her son was caught and convicted of the murder, while the man who had actually done it got off scot free. This was the man who was banging on the door, although when he got in and confronted them both, he told a different story. His version had the son killing the guard, but his own actions suggested a homicidal streak which made it more likely he was the guilty party.

Then the story changes completely, as the doctor is told to look closely at the dead man, and asked if he recognises him. He doesn’t, but it’s not surprising, as he’s never met his fiancée’s brother. It turns out that the dead man is indeed the brother of the doctor’s fiancée, lured to London by a forged letter which appeared to be from the doctor, inviting the brother down to London to see for himself the doctor’s lovely lodgings, and killed just before the doctor himself entered the room. The trap has been set – the dead man, and the doctor’s arrival just before he died, will make it look as if the doctor killed him in order to marry his fiancée without needing the brother’s consent. The forged letter, in the doctor’s own handwriting, will clinch the deal. But who has set this trap?

Well, it takes a little while, but the thug reveals himself to be a man who deeply loved the previous fiancée whom the doctor jilted. Once rejected, the young lady apparently pined away, and this revenge was plotted by the lover and the young lady’s mother, the elderly lady in the veil. The mother then began to criticise the doctor, telling him that she’d been happy with the way her daughter treated her, and asking him what it was that she had said which had made the doctor break off the engagement. Well, it was all too unlikely for me, and it wasn’t long before the old lady was exposed as the young lady, and the similarity with Fatal Attraction became clear. Naturally, she’d killed off her mother, by leaving her food outside her door so she starved to death, but she’s still obsessed with knowing what her mother had said that affected the doctor so much he broke off the engagement. He assures her there wasn’t anything, just her treatment of her mother, but she’s well gone by now. There’s a mad chase outside the house, and then first the lover, then the deranged ex-fiancée end up in the river. Whew.

The final twists and turns were enjoyable enough, but the piece could do with some serious cutting to make it more tense. The performances were good enough, and I’d be happy to see future adaptations by this company.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Signalman – September 2009


By John Goodrum, based on the short story by Charles Dickens

Directed by John Goodrum

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th September 2009

I vaguely remember reading a ghost story involving a signalman many years ago, but I was basically ignorant of what would happen tonight. As it was I found myself drawn in to the stories told by the two characters, the signalman and his visitor, and the denouement gave both of us a shiver.

The staging was very good, I thought. The arch of a railway tunnel was centre back, with a red light high beside it on the left. High rocky walls enclosed the cutting on either side, while the signalman’s hut was front right. The lighting emphasised each location as the action shifted between outside and inside. The signalman’s hut had few furnishings, but the telegraph signal machine was prominent.

I very much liked the way they showed a train coming through the tunnel. A white light shining from within the tunnel indicated the train, and there was be some smoke and steam coming out as well. Then the lighting flickered over the set like the light from passing carriage windows as the train rushed past, together with the appropriate sound effects. It was an impressive way to deal with it, and certainly got my imagination fully engaged. I realised after a few of these that the signalman was looking up at the train because he was at ground level, not on a platform.

The opening scene was well done, creating just the right sense of chill, as only the visitor was talking. The signalman’s reaction, apparently frozen with fear, got my nerves tingling and the spooky sound of the visitor’s calls from on high at the start also contributed to this. I gather this tour had only started about a week ago which explains why the signalman was having difficulty remembering his lines, and didn’t always deliver the ones he could remember as clearly as I would have liked, but we got the gist and given that the signalman was meant to be a man in the grip of a strong emotional quandary the mixing up of a few words was entirely in keeping. The visitor was perfectly clear, and with the excellent staging this made for an enjoyable and slightly scary evening.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Dickens Unplugged – February 2008


By Adam Long

Directed by Adam Long

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 15th February 2008

This has been a good week for dogs. On Wednesday, there was a lovely (or not-so-lovely) pooch in Brief Encounter, and tonight we had not only another cuddly pooch (Dora’s little fashion accessory), but also a massive bull terrier, courtesy (if that’s the right term) of Bill Sykes. The cute little pooch nearly stole the show, as they have a tendency to do, I find. Perhaps it was the way it waved at its fans in the audience….

This was the Reduced Shakespeare version of Dickens, and done in much the same style as the Shakespeare, but with more music. There were five actors this time, and they were all well used. Despite all of the cast being male, I found the women’s parts particularly impressive, especially as they often told the male characters where to shove it. Something not often found in the original works, true, but I’m sure they were updating the stories with integrity and love. This lot are, after all, the best Charles Dickens tribute group in the world!

After the opening song, Dickens himself arrives, and remonstrates with the band. The set is a cornucopia of Dickensian bric-a-brac, with signs springing forth from either side, above their heads, and across the floor, to tell us which book we’re being treated to for the next five seconds. Condensed storylines are rattled off in song, and we get to see longer passages from David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and, finally, A Christmas Carol. All of this was interspersed with information about Dickens’s life and death. It was a heady brew.

What did I like most? The guillotine sequence, with Sidney Carton’s head popping up to sing the last line of his song. The way various characters keep interrupting David Copperfield as he’s trying to hear Dora’s last words. Tiny Tim riffing on his electric guitar (I still got the sniffles when Tiny Tim came on). The quick passing of many years, demonstrated by a sign saying “many years” being whisked across the stage. Dickens, ill in bed, being haunted by the “ghosts” of Bill Sykes and Miss Faversham, who’re both annoyed at the way he bumped them off. The early concatenation of songs from Oliver, which annoys Dickens so much he has them act out some correct scenes instead. The over-acting of the bludgeoning scene from Oliver Twist, which was apparently Dickens’ favourite to act out on stage. His ex and Ellen agreed at his graveside that that was what did him in, all that bludgeoning. The three ghosts of Christmas, especially the final one, with his pathetic “woooo”.

It took me a bit of time to get warmed up tonight, so I may have underestimated the performance, but I suspect there’s more to come. There are some more serious bits to this show, but they are brief, and overall it’s lively, entertaining, and fun. I hope they have a good run in London.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Nicholas Nickleby part 2 – September 2007


By: Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar

Directed by: Jonathan Church and Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th September 2007

First we attended the pre-show event in the Minerva, where Philip Franks chatted with David Edgar about this production and adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. Both of them were knowledgeable and entertaining, so the time flew, and I’m not sure how much I can remember now. David covered the choice of play to adapt fairly briefly (there are notes in the program) and again emphasised how lucky it was that he agreed to do this book instead of Our Mutual Friend. What came across as he talked was that he isn’t as familiar with Dickens work as might be supposed. Philip talked about his enthusiasm for the full-length version first done at Stratford, which he visited regularly in his younger days.

There was talk about the changes between last year’s production and this year, and Philip confirmed that there was more light and shade in the performances: Daniel Weyman as Nicholas had been determined to rise to the challenge last year, which was appropriate enough, but this year he knew he could do it and was now able to look for ways to play the young man unsure of how to handle the world and the situations he finds himself in. The scene where he has to decide whether to take Smike with him or not was much more moving this time, and I certainly felt the decision wasn’t an easy one.

I asked if there were any changes David still wanted to make, and if the play had been translated at all. Both David and Philip answered the first point. David felt there had to come a time when you said “enough’s enough” and let the piece be, although there was still some tinkering even this year. Philip has a file called Reclaim, where he keeps all the bits he wants to see back in the production – by the time they get to Plymouth, it may be back to two four hour parts! This year, they had put back in some lines where Nicholas and Kate are showing Smike the house where they grew up, lines about how it always seemed to be summer then.

On the translation point, the play has been translated, particularly into Swedish and Finnish, for some reason – not so much into other European languages. David appears to go to just about every production he can, and told us how strange it was to hear the Swedish version, where the only things he could make out were the proper names – a gabble of Swedish, then “Mrs Nagg”, etc. He also mentioned another version of his original, which had been done by a theatre group themselves, which brought out different aspects of the play, and Philip mentioned yet another version he’d seen, which David was surprised by – one he didn’t know about! There were other points, and all very entertaining, and the end came all too soon. But at least we had the pleasant prospect of a good evening’s entertainment.

Steve noticed the cameras first – I was oblivious. This show was being recorded (I assume the matinee had also been filmed) as part of the Open University program. We speculated on whether the DVD will be available – if so, don‘t stand between us and the shelves or you may get knocked down in the rush!

The performance started with a “previously, on Nicholas Nickleby”. The cast skimmed through the first half’s events in a wonderful way, introducing us to the characters again, and bringing us up to speed with the plot. It got a tremendous round of applause, and got the whole evening off to a great start.

The second part of this story is a bit quieter, although there isn’t as much suffering on view. (Philip described it as being in a minor key at the pre-show). Nicholas gets to meet the Cheeryble brothers, and their superb cheerfulness lights up this half. They’re wearing bright orange wigs, and when Nicholas meets their nephew, we realise straightaway who he is once he takes off his hat and reveals the same colour of hair.

Nicholas is back with his family, and all seems well, but Smike is poorly, and when Nicholas and Kate take him to see their childhood home, he’s so ill he dies. This was definitely an occasion for tears. Eventually, Uncle Ralph’s evil plans to make Nicholas suffer, and force an innocent girl into a disgusting marriage, come to nothing when Newman Noggs, overhearing the plan, takes matters into his own hands and saves the day. As Ralph Nickleby’s machinations collapse around him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some way out. This was well portrayed, and I felt much more the suffering that Ralph goes through before ending it all in the very bedroom Smike had lived in all those years ago. I felt there was a small chance that he could have changed things round, and become a better person, rather than seeing him as completely irredeemable, but it didn’t quite happen, sadly.

With Ralph and his plots out of the way, all the various couples are free to marry and enjoy life, with many of them going on to happier and happier lives. Dotheboys Hall is trashed, by the remaining “scholars”, and a most sombre note is struck by showing us that these boys have nowhere else to go. One lad is left, freezing in the winter weather, until Nicholas finally rescues him – another tearful moment, and one that will probably go down very well this Christmas.

All in all, I enjoyed this second romp through the Nickleby story. There was still plenty of humour, plenty of sentiment, and lots of energy from the cast. As the audience were pretty responsive, too, I hope they got some good footage for the OU.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Nicholas Nickleby part 1 – September 2007


By: Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar

Directed by: Jonathan Church and Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 18th September 2007

This was a completely different experience to last year’s performance. I suspect three factors were involved. One was that I had the headset, so could hear everything clearly, and in a play that uses words so well, that makes a big difference. Secondly, there were relatively few performances last year – only twenty of each, according to the post-show info – so the cast might not have got into full swing by the time we saw it. And thirdly, I was more familiar with the story, and could anticipate some things this time. For example, Smike’s line about following Nicholas to a “churchyard grave” got me sniffling straightaway tonight.

There was too much going on for me to note it all down, so I’ll have to keep the descriptions fairly general. The set was much the same as last year, though I gather there were changes, such as the spiral staircase that caused so many problems during the final scene of Romeo and Juliet (it had a tendency to hang on to swords, spades, etc.). There was an upper walkway with doors off, the staircase, a general space in the middle, a step up from the surrounding stage level, and various doors including the wide sliding doors at the back that the schoolboys come through at Dotheboys Hall. There was a general air of shabbiness, but that soon changed when the swells were on stage; both costume and lighting gave the stage a completely different feel. The costume changes must have been frantic, as even with four extra actors (post-show again), the number of characters was mind-boggling.

I was much more involved with the story from the start, and I enjoyed the energy of the chorus effect. In fact, I felt I could have done with even more of that at times, as the energy tended to drop a little when there were more straight scenes. I didn’t notice the recasting that much, as they all seemed to be working well together, and the story came across very much more clearly. I found the Dotheboys section almost too tough for me this time round. Even though the details weren’t particularly graphic, my emotional connection with it made me feel the depth of suffering so much more, and I had a few sniffles. In fact, I had a certain moistness of the eyes at various times through the performance, mostly caused by Smike, it must be said.

Of course, the sad parts made an excellent contrast with the funny bits, and I enjoyed these a lot more second time around. Bob Barrett was one actor I remembered well from last year, and I felt his Browdie, the bluff Yorkshireman, was even better this time. I loved the humour of the misunderstanding between Nicholas and Fanny, and Nicholas’s completely inept handling of the situation. I also enjoyed the initial scene between the Nicklebys, just up from the country, and Uncle Ralph, played this time by David Yelland, who got across his character’s complete distaste for any sort of personal relationship, especially with his family, and his total devotion to acquiring money.  There was a lot of humour in this, and I do hope the audience does some booing over the Christmas run in London.

But the best bit of a very good performance was the final scene, showing us the effect the Victorian sensibilities had on the plays of Shakespeare. The advantage of the extra actors was that the Chichester stage, so often a vast wilderness which the cast prowl around trying to fill, was increasingly crowded with every character from the play, including the hapless apothecary, as the dead came back to life and all was bliss and rapture. I must admit to thinking, for one tenuous moment, that the Victorians had a point. After all, Juliet’s potion wasn’t deadly, so why shouldn’t Romeo’s be a placebo? But the thought didn’t last for long, as all the corpses from the freshly skewered to the three days rotting, jumped up to join in the curtain calls. There had already been a number of mishaps – bottle in the wrong hand, no dagger for Juliet so she had to grab a pickaxe – so the final resurrections just fitted right in. It was also lovely to have the whole cast finish the evening with a rousing song, as the music had been so good throughout I’d actually wanted a bit more singing.

The post show nearly had more people on the stage than in the auditorium. I was even more impressed when Philip Franks told us they were busy working out how to adapt the production for a proscenium arch, so they obviously don’t have a lot of time to spare. The overall impression was of a company that’s working really well together, and nearly everyone contributed an answer to the questions. Philip and Jonathan worked really well together as co-directors, Philip in particular was singled out for major praise for his contribution in creating such a good team spirit (a willingness to walk over hot coals was mentioned). Details of the adaptation and the process of getting support for the tour etc. were covered, there was a feeling from last year that they hadn’t fully explored the production, and everyone was going on the tour plus London stint and trip to Canada (no glum faces that I could see). About half of the cast were new this year, and that had helped to bring extra energy into the mix.

The audience were very appreciative, and I got the impression that a number of people had found this year’s offering even better than last year. I have to agree, and now I’m seriously (if that’s the right word) looking forward to Part 2. Tissues at the ready!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at