Written by Peter Arnott
Directed by Ken Alexander
History doesn’t fully recognise how many died during the tragic collapse of the Tay Rail Bridge in 1879. We can estimate. We can approximate. We can even invent the lives of the passengers and crew of the train which plunged into the icy River Tay – but there will likely never be an accurate and definitive method to lay their memories to rest.
But amongst these forgotten voices, another rings out into the winds, one who lived with the uncertainty of their part in the disaster. The Signalman gave the authority for the train to continue over the bridge, deeming it safe to pass. Forty years after the disaster, Thomas Barclay, still a signalman, finds himself uneasy this evening, the same bitter wind wailing, a familiar chime of the bell echoing into the night.
A monologue of sorts, Peter Arnott’s The Signalman stars a lone figure talking into the darkness as Barclay re-lives that night forty years ago and the ensuing investigations, trials and blame. But The Signalman isn’t solely a show concerning the historical event, but the humanity behind the decisions and loss. Barclay’s life is more than this one event, as Arnott’s script dips into other aspects of his and tackles the fragility of life, his son, and the manifestations which rippled following the disaster.
Tantamount with quality across Scottish theatre, Tom McGovern’s presence elevates the already spectacular and well-constructed script, alleviating concerns of distaste or melancholy. Indisputably granted the 2019 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for Best Actor for this very performance, stepping into the King’s Theatre and back into the past is in comforting hands, but unfamiliar audiences will not comprehend precisely how well matched their expectations shall be until the show moves towards its closing moments.
Focusing on the humanity of the tragedy and the lingering persistence of what followed – discussed and ultimately decided regarding the collapse – Arnott’s scripting goes beyond antiquity and expands into a touching production which manifests into a drama concerning the comprehension of loss and dismissal of innocence over shifting blame. McGovern embarks on a difficult task, Ken Alexander’s direction paramount in understanding the necessity for the audience to connect with McGovern, partially aided with Jon Beales composition as the conveyance of emotion and distress lays in the hands of McGovern – and what a vivid picture he manifests.
Audiences wince their eyes to the winds, rub their shoulders to the chill, and buckle their heads against the rains – all through the descriptive text and McGovern’s compelling presence. Appropriately, Alexander and Arnott recognise authority and consequence of McGovern’s presence, and as such Becky Minto’s design work is dressing, illuminating the stage set-up but serving as a world-building tool rather than complicating the narrative.
Alexander’s utilisation of silence does everything and more than hollow words or scoring could achieve. A harrowing slowness to open the production, and indeed to close, bookends the emotional strife and integrity which McGovern has conveyed sublimely. And though the audience is present, the nature in which Thomas speaks with himself avoids an intrusive or inappropriate shattering of storytelling.
The Signalman succeeds in its reverence for the tragedy while instilling an engaging and borderline spiritual aspect of the production. Never straying into a ghost story or disrespectful account of the past, there’s an aethereal presence to the soft flicker of Wayne Dowdeswell’s lighting as McGovern carries out his regular duties – the sharp striking of the bell a sobering reminder of the lives lost and the distress and memories which shackle us.