I do hope I’m not the only one who’s going to be upset when the Genesian Theatre’s days are up. Their production of The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year was good fun, their old-timey-wimey aesthetic unmatched, and their ability to cast actors who look exactly as you would expect their characters to is very strong. In many ways it feels like a theatre stuck in an earlier time, exaggerating romanticised and stereotypical notions of the performing arts in a weirdly wonderful way.
I think this idea of sticking to the past is what dictates many virtues of their production of Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train. It’s an entertaining ‘stranded with strangers’ comedy-thriller that creates amusing moments of incredulity through its emphasis on melodrama, with beautiful stage and costume design to boot (no pun intended). Yet, this constant need to conform is also the harbinger of its vices – excessive over-acting, tumultuous vocal work and varying degrees of chemistry between the cast make this train journey a real bumpy ride.
As always, the cast physically embody their characters almost too perfectly. Kieran Foster as Charles Murdock, young, tall, brown-haired and handsome in his navy suit, alongside Nicole Wineberg as his blonde, leggy, upper-class wife-to-be Peggy, fit the mold of a young couple deeply in love to a tee. John Willis-Richards as the irritable Richard Winthrop, with his broad shoulders and Tom Selleck-esque moustache, is a perfect foil to foster’s dainty Charles; so too is Zoe Crawford as Richard’s brazen wife Elsie to Wineberg’s somewhat modest Peggy. Tristan Black, making his play debut as train conductor Teddie Deakin, the glue that held the characters together, and all the other supporting cast are exact caricatures of characters, visually giving the audience exactly what they expect to see.
Again, Genesian delivers in the aesthetics department. Set and Costume Designer Ash Bell gives us 1920s England in all its colourful, silky, well-dressed glory. Every bowtie, brogue and brooch is as symbolic as it is stylish, from late entrant Julia Price (Julia Campbell’s second-half character) deceptively pure white clothing to (also late entrant) Dr Sterling’s (Elizabeth MacGregor) underwhelmingly simple garments slightly offset by a blooming pearl necklace. The eerie platform set was well formed, with all its dust covered wooden furniture, balking floorboards, and murky windows. Ash really grasped the true facets of a ghostly atmosphere from which the mystery manifests. Bravo Bell.
Coming to the actual performance, we start to experience some delays.
One must question why a clearly boring script was allowed to take effect without much consideration for the entertainment quality that is expected in light of today’s theatrical standards. The comedic elements, limited to slapstick style and melodramatic components, were just a bit too over the top for a (presumably) sophisticated audience. This is best seen in Campbell’s entire first half performance, where she plays the outrageous octogenarian Ms Bourne (also, if anyone can tell me what her closing lines were at the play’s end that would be much appreciated).
Traditional English accents are largely adhered to, but Peggy, Bourne and Sterling (whose pacing and lack of energy gets exhausting at times) do occasionally slip back into the convict tongue. By contrast, one can’t hear half of Fal Vale station attendant Saul Hodgkin’s (Mark Langham) dialogue – his attempted British accent was difficult to understand and, like a real English transport manager, the artificial sounds around him (which drop in and out very uncomfortably) completely drowned it out.
I hate bringing up technical errors but I think the two separate times the performance was interrupted by radio coverage of last night’s NRL semi-final needs to be noted too (not only because I’m a Souths fan).
If it weren’t for Deakin’s comical physicality (best seen in his polite but uncomfortable interactions with the handsy Price) or his role in the completely unexpected plot twist, Willis-Richards’ nuanced portrayal of macho and resourceful Richard Winthrop, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them reactions between the Murdocks (the subtle blowing of a kiss, perfectly-executed synchronised lines or the way one’s engagement with other characters non-verbally brings out the jealousy of the other), it would require significant trackwork to travel through the 2-hour performance.
Ultimately, the play is full of twists and turns (train track pun intended). With a finale that I didn’t see coming (but apparently more woke audience members did), it did what it was designed to do. Yet, whilst it carried us on a reasonably suspenseful journey, it nonetheless was lacklustre, never seeming to fully pull-out from the old-school platform when it was probably the better thing to do. If you’re waiting for the next train to take you to a performance of theatrical genius, then perhaps Fal Vale Station is the wrong place to terminate.