We were welcomed into the Barron by Wilf Wheatley, collecting our tickets in character. Wheatley’s Cornish-accented stationmaster was the first sign that Mermaids’ latest production, Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train, was going to be a raucous affair: teetering between camp comedy and jump-scare titillation.
Directed jointly by Joshua Undy-Jamison and Sophia Anderson, The Ghost Train was demonstrably a passion project. While Anderson described it as a ‘delightfully mad show’ in the programme’s accompanying director’s notes, Undy-Jamison spoke of combining his reputation as a technician in St Andrews’ theatre scene with assuming ‘the director’s table’. In fact, one of the show’s greatest strengths was undoubtedly Undy-Jamison’s technical background. The Barron, home to hundreds of shows over the years, can be difficult to make new. The Ghost Train’s set was refreshingly ambitious, wide and bureaucratic, perfectly encapsulating the austere uniformity of a station waiting room. The success of the play’s ‘look’ was further complemented by costume designer Adia Folsom’s close attention to detail: the outfits were time-appropriate while still distinguishing each character enough to draw out their individual quirks.
And quirks there were. I knew very little about The Ghost Train before I went in; I had been envisaging something akin to The Woman in Black. I was delighted to discover that the production was instead outrageously arch – the ghoulish-portion of the story comes remarkably late, in favour of establishing a group of stranded passengers with unique neuroses, peculiarities, and a fantastic range of accents. Harry Johnson was an especial standout and played the role of the devilish Bright Young Thing with aplomb; he had entire rows of the audience in hysterics. Elliot Seth Faber acted as an excellent foil to Johnson, amusingly frustrated by Johnson’s obstreperous antics, while Isabella Sheridan is to be commended for spending a great deal of the play fast asleep on a table but still enchanting the audience with her descent from an aloof outsider, speaking in cut-glass RP, to a doddery old woman undone by a bottle of brandy.
Perhaps this was the production’s flaw, however – it was presented, at least in marketing terms, as ghostlier than it really was. I felt that the show could have leant even more heavily into its camp humour, which really was a joy to watch; doubly so because it was evident how much fun the cast was having in the process. Lighting and sound effects attempted to create the atmosphere of a haunted train station, and admirably so; I appreciated the peal of bells and the shocks of thunder. Nonetheless, these moments felt almost out of step with a script and direction that seemed to prioritize the comedy over the horror. Unfortunately, the show also seemed to run somewhat out of steam right as it reached its peak, with the delivery of lines becoming a little confused. I was not entirely convinced I understood the ending; it felt unnecessarily hurried.
Overall, the cast and crew of The Ghost Train ought to feel proud. The actors were unselfconsciously enjoying themselves and the audience were right there with them too; revelling in the zany script, barmy characters, and contrasting accents. The set, costume, and technical contributions were very strong, and my one regret is that the production later lost that vital energy that had powered it in its first half.