In the depths of winter, and the lead-up to the festive season, Arena Theatre Wolverhampton and Beautiful Shadows theatre company have brought two classic Victorian ghost stories to the stage, each newly adapted by a contemporary playwright and performed solo.

The Open Door by Charlotte Riddell (adapted by Hannah Torrance) reveals a single door - a door that will unexplainedly not stay shut - at the centre of the dark secret of a mansion’s murderous past. The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens (adapted by Matt Beames) is set at the mouth of a pitch-black railway tunnel punctuated by a red ‘danger light’, where a lone signal-man is haunted by ghostly visions of a spectre that warns of imminent danger.

Act 1 presented Kirsty Mealing in The Open Door: a curious tale narrated by and featuring Charlotte Riddell herself. Mealing’s portrayal of Lottie was wonderful, revealing her to be a bolshy, witty young woman intent on proving both her own self-worth and that of the ‘fairer sex’ by solving the mystery of the open door at Ladlow Hall. She is an engaging protagonist, mapping the rise of feminism amongst women writing in the 19th century.

I did, however, feel that Mealing’s other characters fell a little short of the mark. Whereas Lottie was fully developed and convincing, I found the others she met along the way less so. Nevertheless, this didn’t detract from what was a thrilling tale - particularly in the closing scene at Ladlow Hall that’s fraught with danger and revelations.

I was even more enthralled by The Signal-Man - a story that sparked my intrigue from the get-go. Edward Spence was delightful as the single performer, and gave thorough, distinct characterisations of Dickens, the signal-man and the minor characters. 

Spence demonstrated impeccable command of voice (in tone, accent and volume) to create his characters, along with each having distinct physical tells: the signal-man with his stooped stance and haggard expression, and Dickens the (almost) unwaveringly upright, composed pillar of an English gentleman. His timing was equally impressive, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout, willing the mystery to continue to unravel before our eyes.

The Signal-Man was also where lighting designer Joanne Marshall and sound designer Drew White’s respective talents really came into their own. Their command of their craft made The Signal-Man all the more ghostly, creating a truly sensual experience for the audience throughout. This was particularly evident as the train passed the signal-man’s box to mark the passage of time within the piece - a stroke of genius to top off this wonderfully rousing piece of theatre.

These Dark Tales in Winter have been put together for a thrilling evening of entertainment, marked by horror and chilling apparitions - certainly a striking contrast to shows typical of the festive period. 

Dark Tales in Winter runs at Arena Theatre until Saturday 21 December.

 

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Lauren Cole