Perth Theatre’s first proper production since March 2020, ‘The Signalman’ is an absorbing drama focusing on the infamous Tay Bridge Disaster.
Former Perth Theatre artistic director Ken Alexander is working with award-winning Perth actor Tom McGovern in the atmospheric one-hander which opened on Thursday, September 23.
Poignantly, The Signalman was to be the next Perth Theatre production after The Importance of Being Earnest, the show that was running when the venue was forced by the pandemic to shut down.
The Signalman tells the story of Thomas Barclay, the man in the signal box who sent the Edinburgh/Burntisland train onto the Tay Rail Bridge on a stormy 1879 night with fatal consequences.
It poses the question: who is responsible when accidents occur?
Written by Peter Arnott, The Signalman was originally performed at A Play, A Pie and A Pint in association with the Traverse Theatre.
The play swept the boards at the 2020 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) picking up best male performance (Tom McGovern), best new play (Peter Arnott) and best production, with a nomination for Ken Alexander in the best director category.
Now it plays for 10 days in Perth’s carefully restored Edwardian auditorium, a perfect setting for a drama set in 1919, when the now older Thomas Barclay looks back on the terrible events he was part of 40 years earlier, the night the train plunged into the water.
Director Ken Alexander commented: “This view of the Tay Bridge Disaster is offered as a ghost story.
“Expect to get a real chill up your spine.
“It’s drawn on the real testimony of Thomas the signalman who was called up to give evidence at an enquiry just a week after it happened.
“On stage we see an older man, now aged 64, who comes from the perspective of a life lived.
“As a 24-year-old he didn’t ‘get’ the political side of the incident. Now he has a clearer view.
“It’s 1919, the country’s just been through a devastating war, older Thomas has an awareness of politics he didn’t have before.”
Actor Tom McGovern, who has the solo role of signalman Thomas, first heard about what happened to the ill-fated train and its passengers when he took an acting job in Dundee in 1991.
“I was walking about in my breaks and I heard about the disaster,” he explained.
“There were so many elements to this ‘Titanic’ incident. But there is no memorial, nothing in Dundee to really explain it.
“I was really interested, I was wracking my brains wondering how to tell the story and I thought to take the idea to playwright Peter Arnott. Now I’m so looking forward to sharing Peter’s play.
“This is the first fully staged theatre performance of it and we have had to wait years to get to this point.
“As you can imagine, I jumped at the chance to play Thomas.
“It is all pretty ghostly. I’d definitely say it is a drama that needs to be experienced live.
“You would not feel the hairs on your neck prickle if you were seeing this on screen. You have to be there in the room with this man.
“Before the pandemic it was due to be performed in the Studio Theatre at Perth Theatre.
“Now as we return with social distancing, we will do it in the larger main auditorium, which I think is great.
“Perth Theatre is perfect intimate space for an older Thomas, who has blamed himself all these years, to go over the traumatic events that happened when he was just a green 24-year-old.
“Although you are hearing about events that happened more than a hundred years ago, this play has unexpected resonance.
“The Signalman is wonderful. It is about memory, history, blame – and it is about now.”
The Signalman is on in Perth, now until Saturday, October 2.
Tickets from www.horsecross.co.uk