Reviews Manchester Published 22 May 2015

The Ghost Train

Royal Exchange ⋄ 14th May – 20th June 2015

The illusion of playing fast and loose.

James Varney

I really wanted to enjoy Told by an Idiot’s new show, a reworking of Arnold Ridley’s mystery about a group of stranded passengers and a ghostly locomotive, and in the beginning I did enjoy it because it started strong, in this interesting post-textual frame, with an onstage sound effects table, semi-present technician/characters, and a fun tension between the sound table and the onstage characters/actors. The opening scene was a lovely moment of assembly of the sounds of a train, generated by the actors onstage and the whole impression was that we were about to see something fun and interesting.

Then after about fifteen minutes, this frame was shooed offstage and never made a reappearance and the whole show shifted into an entirely dramaturgically separate-feeling pseudo-pantomime mode, which it stayed in until the end. The energy stayed high and the performances stayed strong, and the little tricks and quirks kept flying but at the same time there was this sense of watching something very static.

I’m not sure I’m able to pin it down to any one thing but Paul Hunter’s production consistently made me feel it was generating the illusion of playing fast and loose whilst playing incredibly safe; the first fifteen minutes aside I became increasingly incapable of feeling surprise at what was going on in front of me; it was relentless in its delivery and it became homogenous.

I began to feel like maybe Told by an Idiot picked the wrong text in choosing Ridley’s play, or by any road they paid too much mind to the text: every line felt like a great deal of care had been given to making sure it was clear to us and separate from the others and there was just too much space around every separate thought, which made the whole show feel much slower than it was; despite its denseness and the strength of its execution it plateaued early on and the rest came in a constant stream, a skilful stream but only ever on one level.

I’m banging on and on about how uninspired I felt watching this, but swathes of the audience loved it, and I’m particularly glad that there were so many kids in the audience having a great time – I’m always glad to see kids enjoying theatre (and of late I’m looking for hope everywhere I can find it), so if you’ve got kids take them along and they’ll probably have a great time, but if you’re looking for something that’s going to shake the foundations of what you even think theatre, trains, or ghosts are, then hold out for something else (it’ll probably be a long wait, mind (but if you’re interested in trains you’re probably used to that)).

I just wish this show kept on the same track it started on, because I think it could have gone somewhere brilliant with the whole glitching up the process of readaptation and reproduction (this is all wishful thinking), as it was, the interest faded far too rapidly and the energy and deliberateness of the piece became overwhelming, which resulted in a show that felt less than the sum of its parts, down to the sheer number of parts.


James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

The Ghost Train Show Info

Produced by Told by an Idiot

Directed by Paul Hunter

Written by Arnold Ridley




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