The Signalman (As part of A Play, A Pie and a Pint)
**** 4 stars.
My first PPP of this all-too-short season: and it was a cracker to begin with!
I’m never able to cross the Tay rail bridge on the way into Dundee without a shudder and a thought for the people who plunged to their deaths on the night of 28 December 1870 when the central section of the eighteen-month-old bridge collapsed, sending the driver, fireman and passengers on the train from Edinburgh to Burntisland plunging to their deaths in the wild stormy night.
Peter Arnott has written a gripping monologue for Tom McGovern as the signalman Thomas Barclay, the last man to see the train and its passengers as they passed him on their way across the bridge and into the darkness. Serious, bespectacled, checking the time on his pocket watch as he settles himself to work in the signal cabin he’s worked in for forty years, Thomas Barclay finds he’s feeling gey queer: hot and bothered, shivering and sweating…
Aye, it’s forty years to the day that it happened, and he minds how young he was, and how it felt to be in the public eye at the enquiry, with all those lawyers and judges staring at him, and so angry: at what, he wasn’t sure, but they were angry. He wonders now whether it was because they all felt humiliated that the Brig o’ the Future had failed, had buckled: somebody had to be to blame. He minds the sermons preached in the kirks the Sunday before the enquiry – all making out that the accident was divine judgement on sinners for working/ travelling on the Sabbath – and then the keenness of the following day’s enquiry, which began with questioning all the ‘little people’ who worked for the railway company and were at their work, not like the architect and shareholders who were off in the south of France getting their dose of winter sunshine…
At the enquiry Thomas patiently answers the questions from the supercilious lawyer who’s trying to trip him up, make him confess a fault: he goes through the entire safety procedure that governs the passage of a train along any single-line piece of track – the message from the signalman before him that the previous ‘down’ train has cleared the section of track between them, and from the signalman ahead that the track is clear; the ‘up’ train passes his own signal station slowly so that he can pass the crew the token that gives them the right to occupy that section of track and moves off into the darkness, into what the lawyer unemotionally describes as “boisterous weather”.
And what did you do then?
Thomas Barclay describes his terror-filled venture in the total darkness out on to the track and bridge, buffeted by the storm and fearfully aware of the fifty-foot drop to the wildly-churning water below, unable to see a thing, until a brief gap in the clouds allows the fitful moonlight to show the gap in the bridge and the broken bridge supports looking like a mouthful of teeth buffeted on every side by the waves.
It’s a cracking piece of writing, superlatively delivered without sensationalism by a master storyteller. I’m not so sure about the questioning of self and others that’s woven into the piece – why do people always have to apportion blame; why do there have to be stories [“the stupider, the better”] woven around people who die tragically – “why can’t they just be folk?”. Why do innocent people die, why do their deaths seem meaningless? Profound questions, but for me they didn’t quite arise naturally from the drama, but rather seemed inserted artificially. But on another day I might feel completely different about this, and accept it all and be very pleased with the whole play.
The audience certainly appreciated a superb performance from a consummate actor.