Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
The Royal Exchange are billing The Ghost Train as a comedy thriller, and there are certainly elements of both within Dad’s Army favourite Arnold Ridley’s 1920s play. It’s a lively production, performed with zeal by the ever-peppy Told By an Idiot, and there’s plenty to commend.
The premise is simple: six passengers are stranded at an isolated railway station, purportedly haunted by a ghost train. The play follows the development of their relationships, and unravels the mystery of the phantom. It’s hardly challenging stuff, but then, it isn’t meant to be, or at least not in this incarnation. Here, it’s clearly supposed to be fun – a riotous, silly, galumphing escapade – and it certainly had the audience laughing throughout.
There were a lot of clever moments: I love a bit of overt theatricality, so I was tickled by the narration-and-sound-effects idea at the start of the play (although I did feel it went on too long), and impressed by some of the set pieces, such as the initial (interrupted) train journey, and the prolonged parrot-chase. The cast revelled in the performance, and their enthusiasm was – at times – infectious.
However, despite (or because of) all the playfulness and witty ideas, the play just didn’t hang together. It was uneven and incoherent at times, with techniques shoehorned in as if it were an A level piece (where students need to demonstrate everything they know, all at once, even if it doesn’t really fit).
And, while some ideas were stretched to their limits – the ludicrous woman-in-a-parrot-suit, for example – other, more promising notions just weren’t taken far enough (the clowning was half-hearted; the drag act criminally understated), which was a real shame.
In all honesty, this play just didn’t work for me or my companions, but this certainly wasn’t a universal view. The house was raucous with laughter, and the applause was enthusiastic. Why not see it and decide for yourself? You certainly won’t be bored.