The creative team behind Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor at the Park Theatre have done an outstanding job on this production. Director Shilpa T-Hyland has directed the cast with precision and imagination and they have responded well. Unfortunately, even the combined skills and talents of this well-matched team are not enough to overcome the weaknesses in Paul Morrissey’s protracted script.
The talent and imagination of the creatives shines throughout
The tale sounds full of promise. It’s based on the true story of James Ducat (Ewan Stewart), Thomas Marshall (Jamie Quinn) and Donald MacArthur (Graeme Dalling), so these events actually happened, or at least the starting point did. There are no spoilers in what follows, partly because there are no thrilling, revelatory moments that might be inadvertently given away, and mostly because this synopsis is already in the public domain. So here we go.
On 26th December 1900, a small ship made its way to the Flannan Islands in the far reaches of the Outer Hebrides. Its destination was the lighthouse on Eilean Mor, a remote island that was completely uninhabited apart from the aforementioned wickies: men who maintained the mariners’ beacon. When the ship arrived on the island, the lighthouse was unlocked and two of three oil-skinned coats belonging to the men were missing. The fire was out and had been for some days. The kitchen area had half-eaten food. The chairs were overturned, and the clock had stopped. Crucially, the lighthouse lamp was extinguished and the three men responsible for its upkeep had vanished.
What had happened? That is the historical mystery that has never been solved. Hence, everything that takes place on stage is speculation, except for the interspersed narrations of the inspectors’ report, which came to no convincing conclusion. Hence, after two hours we are no further forward than we were at the beginning. En route to that destination, we’ve heard some anecdotes about the history of the lighthouse, another mystery concerning the first wickies and some background to the men who vanished. Much of this raises more questions than it answers.
Each member of the cast does a good job of delivering this narrative as the three wickies and of doubling up as the team of investigators. They delineate three contrasting individuals, but question marks remain about their characters which go beyond matters of performance. Stewart is entirely credible as Ducat, the man who has devoted his life to the lighthouse and has been its principal keeper, except for the first year or so of its existence. Events from that period still occupy his mind and he gives the feeling of a man trying to atone for something in which he may have played no damaging part. The tragedy of that time is known by MacArthur who against the advice of Ducat relates it to the rookie, Marshall, formerly a fisherman. It’s part of the ongoing process he engages in of frightening the naive novice. His story takes us into the realms of ghosts and hauntings which prove unnerving for the young lad who has left behind his wife and two small children.
Quite why he abandoned them is unclear and indeed Quinn’s portrayal of the man suggests nothing of the hardened type to whom the job might appeal. Was this perhaps how Ducat started out, who also left his beloved children and wife. In contrast, Dalling is every bit the bitter, angry man who wallows in isolation and who has probably done society a favour by placing himself out of harm’s way. Breaking up this heavy scene are some very witty exchanges and some moments of general laughter, often thanks to the intonation and timing of the lines.
Throughout the play we have the joy of seeing the wonderfull ‘brick’ walls of the lighthouse, the windows, the exterior upper walkway and the spiral steps that hang ominously over the table, courtesy of designer design Zoe Hurwitz. It’s a triumph. The same can also be said for the lighting design by Bethany Gupwell, the sound design by Nik Paget-Tomlinson, the music by Niall Bailey and the illusion design by John Bulleid. Their creativity goes beyond the supportive to create chilling and sometimes frightening moments that accentuaute the storyline and the bleak atmosphere and spooky air that haunts the building and dominates throughout. The talent and imagination of the creatives shines throughout.
It’s a pity that the scope for filling out this tale is so limited, that the other tales are hardly gripping and that so much is just repetitivevly about the plight of the wickies.