Adapted from Charles Dickens’ eerie and twisty short story, The Signalman weaves a spooky yarn about ghosts and trains (but no ghost trains).
The Signalman is absorbing, melancholy
The 50-minute play is delivered by three actors: Mark Beer, Ben Kinsman, and Alfie James. All are audible and help make the story easy to follow, and their casting features some clever devices. For one thing, Kinsman plays the past-self of Beer’s character and the transitions between retrospective narration to present-tense dialogue are neat and effectual. The final moments of the play are also given a real punch by an unexpected twist which casting assists, but you’ll have to listen to it to find out how. I can’t help but feel that Dickens’ haunting prose is in safe hands being adapted by James.
Indeed, much of the original source material is left intact. Beer delivers extracts of the prose as emphatic narration. He occasionally falters on the more convoluted sentences, which is shame because of the effectiveness of his prevailing sincerity.
Kinsman plays a very different role to his previous collaboration with James (My Boy Danny), but smoothly pulls off old-fashioned speaking patterns in a vocal performance with surprising range - it is impressive to find the opportunity for great variety in volume and tone within a such a simple story.
James demonstrates less range, but his character is possibly less demanding of it. His deliberately ominous and unsettled grouching does justice to the sombre subject matter and setting.
Being a radio play, the sound effects also play a significant role in creating a mood. Well-chosen musical cues create a simmering atmosphere of tension while sounds from inside the world make it feel lived-in and real. A woman screaming tips the genre scales a little too far from careful chiller into scare-fest, but this mistake isn’t made elsewhere. One only wishes that the sound design enabled the effects and music to blend more evenly into the action – they cut out rather suddenly and never exist simultaneously with the dialogue.
Despite these nit-picks, The Signalman is absorbing, melancholy and perfectly capable of satisfying an itch for something spooky. If you’re interested in giving it a listen, its free on Youtube for the time being.