Arnold Ridley’s (Dad’s Army) classic The Ghost Train gets a revival at the Brockley Jack. What at first seems an odd decision, to stage a ghost story thriller over the Christmas period, actually makes for an enjoyable mystery story – a nice alternative to much of the seasonal fare, and a rather well-produced and performed piece.
You may be surprised to read this, but The Ghost Train was one of the most popular plays in the world, with a hugely successful West End run at St Martin’s Theatre before The Mousetrap took up residence. The fact that it’s languished into obscurity is probably more down to the old-fashioned nature of the plot than any lack of quality.
A group of stereotypical tourists find themselves trapped at a railway station overnight due to a missed connection, and the station master warns them of the mysterious ghost train that thunders through the station every night. After a collection of shocks, in turns out that all may not be as it seems…
Watching The Ghost Train is a strange experience: to say that it has dated almost seems an understatement. The writing seems thudding, with plot elements being so clearly set up from the get-go and the most cliched characters, but this is more than forgiveable when approaching this as a period piece – these elements, which a modern audience might scoff at, were cutting edge at the time. However, as popular and influential shows like The Woman in Black (which is still running in the West End) have shown, not every such piece dates – perhaps because The Ghost Train was one of the first of its kind, many of its elements have moved from revolutionary to core element of this kind of story. Now, thanks to popular TV shows like Scooby-Doo that follow a similar structure, these elements now just seem risible – which is a shame, as there’s, in essence, nothing wrong with the story. It’s just, well… dated. From the lackadaisical aristo through to the just-married couple, these characters have become stock.
If an audience member can place all that aside, however, they’ll be in for a fun night. The shocks are genuine and the performances truthful, although you may have to suppress a snigger or two at the bop-the-Jerry-on-the-nose Britishness of some of the lines. Kate Bannister has directed a very slick production, utilising the space at the Brockley Jack in full to create a very believable and sumptuous set (designed by David Shields), and the actors all work their hearts out – if you had to single out anyone, Barra Collins’ aristocrat works remarkably well as silly and serious, but everyone is clearly having a whale of a time. Shields, William Ingham (lights) and Joe Churchman (sound) have worked together excellently to fully realise the set, and the result is very impressive.
If it weren’t for the choice of play, I’d be singing this show’s praises – it’s a step above the Brockley Jack’s normally already strong par in terms of production, and I’d love to recommend it whole-heartedly – but there’s a very strong caveat attached: it’s a classic so steeped in nostalgia that it’s almost dripping from every inch of the carefully distressed set. There’s an audience that will love this, and one that will find it difficult to take seriously – although I would strongly urge that latter to put that to one side and give it a go. It may not be the Christmas show you’d expect, but this is one of the more interesting seasonal offers this year!