When it comes to ghost stories, one name dominates, and for good reason. M.R James’ mastery of the form harks back to telling stories around the fireside; spoken words and flickering flames, it’s an almost primal thing. M.R James may have framed his tales within a cosy Victorian setting with armchairs and ornate fireplaces but the essence is the same, a tale to chill with the warmth of the fire at hand to reassure.
The Grand’s decision to show Middle Ground Theatre’s adaptation of M.R James most famous story Whistle and I’ll Come for You My Lad as part of a double bill is a welcome one and back to back with Chuck Dickens’ The Signalman (the greatest ghost story ever written according to Doctor Who!) makes for a great night of chilling theatre.
Whistle (as we will refer to it to save ink), a tale of a sceptic thrown into a world of hunted hauntings in a small coastal town, is a masterpiece of writing and it would be hard to create a poor version. Middle Ground Theatre do not disappoint and throw their all into this lovely meandering adaptation.
I say meandering not as a negative; the small cast are so confident in their roles and the strength of the production that a relaxed ease pervades the stage, all the better to then contrast against the increasing tensions of the golfer character played by Jack Shepherd (in a stunning performance) as he slowly has to face the creeping horror brought about by his blowing of an ancient whistle that he finds in an ancient graveyard… I know, why would he think anything could possibly go wrong?
The small ensemble cast sparkle on stage. I was able to illicit a personal chill from the fact that Terrence Hardiman played foil to Shepard in both stories. Hardiman is of course for many of us the ultimate bad guy as he was TV’s Demon Headmaster! Fortunately, he was able to shirk that disturbing role and really show his range and humour in both tales, especially as the bellicose Sergeant Major in Whistle.
A charming split stage set framed the story perfectly, creating the public world on one side and private troubled room which Shepherd retired to on the other. A large cinematic projection screen dominated the rear of the stage and felt underused and a tad redundant in my opinion. The choice to set the graveyard/golf course off stage, to the front of it in fact, led to a slightly difficult craning of necks to see the action. My only other niggle was that the infamous steep rake of the Grand’s stage allowed those in the dress circle to see where the ghost would appear, slightly spoiling that delightful thrill.
That said, it was a brilliant performance all round and thundered along at such a pleasant pace that the fifty minutes flew by in a blur. Wonderful stuff.
Scarlett’s review of The Signalman will follow tomorrow.
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