Sunday, 24 May 2015

Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train – Royal Exchange Manchester – 16th May2015

Theatrical wizardry meets slapstick humour when Arnold Ridley’s 1923 comedy thriller receives the Told by an Idiot treatment.

Told by an Idiot have chosen to celebrate their 25th anniversary with what must be the best known of Arnold Ridley’s substantial output for the stage. Ridley himself is best remembered for his role of Godfrey in TV’s Dad’s Army, and many devotees of the series might be surprised to find he was also an accomplished and popular playwright.

Since first appearing in 1923, The Ghost Train has been played for melodrama and it’s been played for laughs (notably in Walter Forde’s 1941 film, which was a vehicle for Arthur Askey and “Stinker” Murdoch) but Paul Hunter’s new staging for the Royal Exchange treads a line between, with laughs and surprises and even a witty nod, early in the first act, to its adaptations for Radio.

Playing the piece in the round in this very exposed and intimate performance space is a bold move that suits Told by an Idiot’s off the wall style perfectly, and affords boundless opportunities for tremendously theatrical moments, near slapstick scenes and witty asides to the audience.

The ensemble cast, some of whom are doubling roles, work with impeccable timing and, while all are excellent, there are some conspicuously memorable individual performances. Javier Marzan brings his inimitable physical style to the gloriously dotty Miss Bourne, the clown in him coming out in particular after she downs a bottle of brandy. Calum Finlay is the annoying but lovable Teddie, whose hat gets the party of travellers marooned at the ghostly station. Exchange audiences may remember him from Too Clever by Half, and here he’s a perfect fit in the plus-fours and flat cap. Marzan is not the only role reversal, with Amanda Hadingue donning a Captain Birdseye beard as the mysterious stationmaster Saul Hodgkin, while Joanna Holden takes a crowd-pleasing flight of fancy in one of her doubling roles.

The ingenuity with which trains come and go at the beginning and end are genuine theatrical magic, matched by some brilliant set pieces. The telling of the ghostly tale of the train crash is enacted with a madcap mixture of dramatic staging and humour, and the passing through of the eponymous apparition is brilliantly done.

The ghost train will make you laugh out loud and hold you on the edge of your seats, waiting not just for the inevitable twist in the tale but also to see what parlour trick they’ll pull out of their hats next.

The Ghost Train plays at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until 20th June 2015. Follow this link for details and tickets:

The Ghost Train - photo (c) Jonathan Keenan

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