Preview and interview: The Signalman

A signalman is haunted by a mysterious figure standing at the mouth of a train tunnel. He’s sure it’s a warning – but what is it warning against?

Quote from publicity for The Signalman

In the grand tradition of festive adaptations from Charles Dickens, and the Ghost Story for Christmas, a new production by Paragon Theatre Collective of The Signalman arrives at the Old Red Lion in Islington on 10 December, running until 4 January 2020.

As I am a fan of both this short story and Dickens in general (I’m seeing Great Expectations as another festive treat), I wanted to know more about The Signalman and those involved. My thanks to actor Tim Larkfield, director Sam Raffal and writer Martin Malcolm, who agreed to answer some questions for this feature.

Poster image for The Signalman, Image credit Elee Nova

Interview about The Signalman

The Signalman is such an iconic story and many of us remember the chilling TV adaptation. How are you planning to bring the complexities of this story to a small stage?

SR: This adaptation places The Signalman at the centre of the story. He narrates the past horrors he’s witnessed as well as elucidating his thoughts and trying to unpick his feelings on what he’s experienced. He speaks to Joe, a crossing sweeper who essentially represents the audience. This allows the viewer to unravel the story and, along with some clever lighting and sound effects, draws you right in to the heart of the story.

TL: I think it’s a very intimate show because it focuses on human emotions and reactions to extraordinary events. Of course we will have sound and lighting effects to help evoke a Victorian steam railway, but I think the quality of the writing really conjures up a sense of time, place and atmosphere for the audience.

MM: It’s a very immersive experience, we even (gently) cast the audience! We also have a spooky, evocative soundscape that wraps around us, plus there are Victorian songs to take you deep into The Signalman‘s shadowy world. With ghost stories, suspense and anticipation are crucial. Helen Baranova plays a silent onlooker and her wordless reactions are a touchstone for the audience. We experience The Signalman‘s tragic story through her sympathetic responses.

The ghost story is a traditional part of Christmas, with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol having several outings across London this year. What attracted you to this particular tale?

MM: First, it’s a cracking ghost story that fully delivers on Christmas chills.  But it’s also a chance to explore a lesser-known Dickens story. Written at the very end of his life, it’s one that sums up the concerns that lay closest to his heart: the poor, the homeless, the overlooked and dispossessed people he saw in the London streets. It’s a story that resonates with our own time too. The Signalman is driven to his tragedy by what we would call his zero-hours contract and his frail mental health.

TL: I have seen the TV version – which I actually have in a box-set on DVD at home with other BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas. But when I first read an extract from the script, I didn’t know it was based on a Dickens story: I just loved the immediacy of the writing. It’s a great role to play. I think The Signalman is a complex character and the script touches on many issues that are still very relevant today.

SR: I knew when I first read the play that it had potential as a Christmas story, but it works without it being advertised as a seasonal piece. I loved the script and knew I wanted to be involved as soon as I read it. It’s a classic short story and hopefully our production will do it justice.

Your production brings in other characters, like Joe from Bleak House, to open out the narrative. What purpose do they serve in your adaptation?

MM: Joe, a lost homeless child, helps The Signalman by patiently listening as he tries to come to terms with what’s haunting him. We wanted to give our Signalman someone to talk to, who would be a reassuring sympathetic presence and who wouldn’t go judging him. With Joe’s help, the Signalman opens his heart and as he does we get let in on his story.

TL: The crossing sweeper is a silent listener, but I think she also represents something bigger – the under-represented or the under-privileged, people who are ignored and not listened to, or blamed for something that is not their fault. The character is on stage throughout the production, so the audience hear the story through her, in a way.

SR: As I mentioned, Joe carries the responsibility of not only being a fully rounded character in her own right, but also as a direct link to us, the audience. She shares our hopes, fears and sense of dread. To the signalman, she represents society as a whole – he must convince her that the accident that has precipitated this play was not his fault.

Helen Baranova and Tim Larkfield in The Signalman. Image by Elee Nova.
Helen Baranova and Tim Larkfield in The Signalman. Image by Elee Nova.

The Signalman relies on a sense of terror and foreboding, which builds up throughout the piece/ If you were to describe your production in one tagline as if it were a cinema film, what would it be?

SR: “A signalman is haunted by a mysterious figure standing at the mouth of a train tunnel. He’s sure it’s a warning – but what is it warning against?”

MM: “There is danger hanging over this line. Something is coming.”

TL: “Something wasn’t right. I was warned…”

Tell me a bit more about the cast and creatives behind this adaptation, and what are your future plans once The Signalman ends?

SR: I’m an actor, writer, director and producer, and trained at the Poor School and Identity School of Acting. The Signalman is the second play I have directed; my first, Fake News, was a total sell-out at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. We have Samuel Welch as sound designer, an associate artist with Paragon Theatre Collective. Our set designer is Mike Leopold, who’s worked on dozens of shows and been nominated in the Offies three times.

MM: I writes contemporary drama, but I’m also keen on plays that relate stories of the past to the world today. We’ve been talking about a new piece of theatre that takes verbatim accounts of Victorian street life and gives them a modern-day twist.  It’s an idea that’s grown out of our work on The Signalman and we can’t wait to see where it goes.  

TL: We’ve gathered together some really talented people who have all brought their own ideas to the piece. I’m looking forward to bringing the show to life at the suitably haunted Old Red Lion Theatre! Once this run is over we would like to take it on tour, and potentially perform it as a site-specific piece. I think it would be brilliant to do the show in an abandoned railway station at night…!

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens