Wednesday 16 October 2019

The Signalman signals Christmas cracker

  • The Signalman, The New Theatre, Dublin
  • Iphigenia in Splott, Smock Alley, Dublin
Marcus Lamb and Daniel Reardon in 'The Signalman' at the New Theatre
Marcus Lamb and Daniel Reardon in 'The Signalman' at the New Theatre
Rachel O'Connell in 'Iphigenia in Splott' at Smock Alley

A new adaptation of a classic Dickens tale gets full marks from Emer O'Kelly.

There's a Christmas offering at The New Theatre in Dublin, an in-house co-production with WitchWork - and it's probably the best Christmas piece I've seen in many a year.

Jane McCarthy, one of the WitchWork trio of producers, has adapted the Dickens short story The Signalman, written in 1866. Originally, according to her programme notes, it was a single character narration. She has reversed the usual theatrical procedure of one person narrating the actions and conversations of several characters. Instead, the single-line story has become a two-hander, giving a real dramatic flourish to the protagonists.

Daniel Reardon is the old signalman manning a lonely rail outpost in the depths of winter in the English countryside. Marcus Lamb is the mysterious gentlemanly visitor who climbs down the steep pathway of the siding. And then they get talking by the light of a brazier.

It's a ghost story, with the tension building nicely to a truly tense climax of horror. But it also presages attitudes towards dreams, visions and fears which would not begin to emerge into clinical practice for another 25 years, when Freud would expound his theories. The visiting gentleman is a sceptic, it seems. He has heard that the old signalman, despite having managed to "educate himself" through reading to while away the lonely years at his post, believes vehemently that he is haunted by an evil spirit which warns him of horrors to come - but which he is powerless to prevent. And they came: a rail crash in which 13 people died; another incident in which a bride fell from a train to be carried bleeding and dying into the signalman's box.

The horrors were real, says the man of science (the visitor is a doctor), but the visions need only be properly confronted to be dispelled. Except the doctor too has an unexplained horror in his life: the death of his newly married sister who saw tormenting visions. Were they the true cause of her death?

The production is an absolute corker, with meticulously true acting from both actors and cracking direction from Matthew Ralli. The visual and sound values are equally impressive: a stunning set from Lisa Krugel, lit with spooky effect by Paul Doran and with eerie sound by Carl Kennedy.

On a less happy note, there is bad news from Anthony Fox, the artistic director of The New Theatre, which is marking its 21st birthday with little to celebrate about the future.

Like all small independent theatres, it struggles. But over the years I have seen a lot of stimulating and very good work there.

And I have never been less than impressed by Fox's determination to keep going in the face of all odds. But he now says that unless some funding can be sourced by the summer of 2019, The New Theatre, in which he has invested so much, will close in the autumn. Another nail in the coffin of our politicians' claims to value the arts?


For a writer to get away with wearing his heart on his sleeve in a play can be difficult. It may be admirable in ethical terms but it can have a scatter-gun effect on the play.

And that is rather the case with Welsh playwright Gary Owen's Iphigenia in Splott. A working-class modern Welsh take on the Greek legend of Iphigenia, whose father sacrificed her to the gods to obtain a fair wind for his ships in war, Owen's heroine Effie sacrifices herself.

Rachel O'Connell in 'Iphigenia in Splott' at Smock Alley

She ticks all today's disillusioned boxes: out of work (although there is no sign this bothers her), she drinks herself into three-day hangovers interspersed with casual sex marathons. Then she falls (hard) for a one-legged squaddie encountered in a club, but finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand which she had romantically expected to be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Finding out that he is married, she sacrifices herself by walking away to avoid hurting his wife and small daughter. She refuses financial help from her long-time boyfriend. When she goes into premature labour, giving birth in an ambulance between hospitals due to staff shortages, her baby dies. And then she withdraws the negligence claim which was worth half a million in order not to put further financial strain on the public services. Yup, Effie sacrifices.

But she wants people to realise they owe her a lot. And then she goes back to drinking herself into oblivion.

The tragedy is real: the play was written as a protest against the failure of public services. Reality:Check have moved it to Ireland, where Effie (Rachel O'Connell) has a Cork accent. The universality of youth culture (aggression and crude language) transposes easily, but there are a few illogicalities: there aren't many war-maimed squaddies hanging around in Cork clubs. But the principle is the same and, largely thanks to a superb performance from O'Connell, it is effective and affecting.

But it can't hide the fact that Owen allowed his indignation in writing to run all over the place.

It's at Smock Alley in Dublin, directed by Tracy Ryan, and designed by Fenna Von Hirschheydt.

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