It’s been nearly 30 years since a train last visited Dunstable but there are residents who still claim to hear at night the chuff of the engines and the whistles from its guards.
Those memories – and the fear of being stranded on a deserted platform late at night – came back at the opening of Arnold Ridley’s vintage thriller, The Ghost Train, which pulled into the town’s Grove Theatre last night.
Ridley, possibly better known as the old duffer, Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army, churned out The Ghost Train as an aspiring writer in the 1920s. It struggled, then flopped, before later being revived and achieving success in the West End.
But it’s a hoary old chestnut that, while providing a few chills for theatre-goers of a nervous disposition, fails miserably to deliver laughs.
It’s billed as a comedy-thriller but director Patric Kearns really needs to make the production more tongue in cheek. The dialogue is so beastly archaic that the comedy element is lost.
Superficially a ghost story, the plot later takes so many outrageous twists that it disintegrates into a preposterous farce.
The play is set at a deserted Cornish railway station in the 1920s, where a group of travellers have missed their connection and look set to spend the night in the waiting room.
They ask about the next train and stationmaster Saul Hodgkin (Hi-De-Hi’s Jeffrey Holland) is horrified. “Bain’t no trains!”
He then recounts the terrible story of a train crash which left six dead and the station forever haunted. While some of the hardier menfolk refuse to believe such poppycock the women are understandably nervous.
As the night wears on strange things are afoot and the situation isn’t made better by the puerile antics and awful jokes of a jolly cove called Teddie (The Bill’s Tom Butcher).
But not everything’s what it seems and the play thunders, like an out of control locomotive, towards a ludicrous denouement.
The cast have a little or lot to do depending on their sex. The women – Corrinne Wicks (Doctors, Emmerdale, Holby) and Sophie Powles (Emmerdale) stand around looking gorgeous in their period costumes but add nothing to the plot while Judy Buxton (Lovejoy, Blake’s Seven, Bergerac) gets to sleep through most of the performance.
Ben Roddy and Chris Sheridan are the handsome heroes of the story and most of the action is centred on them as they do their level best to save the party from certain death.
They have some terrible lines but manage to make them sound (almost) convincing.
Butcher’s eccentrically dressed Teddie makes facetious comments throughout. Surely he can’t be that dim or is he hiding a secret?
Halfway through the tale a mysterious trio turn up at the station led by Jo Castleton’s Julia Price, a real nut-job who looks like she’s on her way to a Halloween party. She sounds like Joan Collins but looks like Fenella Fielding.
talking Scarlet’s production relies a great deal on sound effects as very little happens in the First Act. The flashing lights look pretty but it’s disappointing that there’s no sight of the Ghost Train (a production at Wycombe Swan that I saw last year came up with a superb set that gave the audience the spectre of the spirit express).
The cast struggle to inject a bit of life into story about death but it’s terribly difficult. There is a lot of earnest expressions and exposition. But Roddy’s bullish Dickie Winthrop does end up with a bit of a bonus. Not only does he help save the day but he also scores with the wife.
The Ghost Train plays at The Grove Theatre until Saturday.
Arnold Ridley’s vintage thriller, The Ghost Train, has been brought back in service by talking Scarlet productions for a UK tour. Review.