An historic pub in the winding streets of old Hampstead – what could be a more apt venue for The Signalman, Dickens’ short tale of the supernatural? Descending to the barely lit vaults below, wreathed in mist, you sit in apprehension as weird music and groans greet your ears. But don’t panic as that’s about as scary as it gets.
The Signalman of the title (Anthony Cord) works in a dark and dreary railway cutting leading to a tunnel. A Traveller (Joshy Connor) comes to visit him and notices the Signalman seems preoccupied. He agrees to explain why if the Traveller will return. The next day he reveals that he has twice seen a spectre at the tunnel entrance and each sighting was followed by a tragedy. He has seen the spectre again in the past week and is filled with dread. The Traveller doubts his story and suggests he see a doctor. Returning for a third time he finds that the Signalman’s sense of impending doom was well-founded.
The original story is based on Dickens’ own experience of a train crash and is narrated by the traveller. Dickens knew how to make his stories and characters leap off the page. But to make this story work as a play inventive dramatisation is needed. Otherwise it risks being two people standing talking about events that happened in the past. Sadly this version does not avoid that pitfall. The play fails to convey the strangeness of the tale and the cast struggle to find the emotions to give it depth. However, the venue – The Duke of Hamilton – one of the area’s last remaining real pubs, has loads of atmosphere. Dickens would likely have loved it.