PPP: The Signalman

Oct 9 2019 | By More

★★★★★  Riveting

The Traverse: Tue 1 – Sat 5 Oct 2019
Review by Thom Dibdin

There is a touch of horror to The Signalman, in which playwright Peter Arnott views the Tay Bridge disaster from the post of signalman Thomas Barclay, on duty at the south end of the bridge on the evening of Sunday December 28, 1879.

This week’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint lunchtime theatre is an intense, intimate piece set in the same signal box, forty years later to the hour, as Tom McGovern’s Barclay looks back – with a shiver – to the events of 1879.

Tom McGovern in The Signalman. Photo by Leslie Black

Peter Arnott’s script, a companion piece to his Tay Bridge which recently closed at Dundee Rep, draws in some way on Barclay’s minuted testimony to the enquiry into the disaster. But this is no piece of verbatim theatre, rather a dark exploration of fear – and of the moment you realise your fears are real.

Ken Alexander directs this with a strong sense of drive and inevitability. It feels as unstoppable as the train itself, which slowed to a walking pace to take the token from Barclay that gave it permission to proceed, before accelerating out into the rain-lashed night above the Tay.

But it is Jon Beales’ soundscape and music, under Andy Cowan’s sound design, coupled with Ross Kirkland and Chris Reilly’s lighting design that makes this so utterly atmospheric.


Both sound and light are used to give real credence to McGovern’s performance. The staging is simple – a couple of chairs, a desk, the bell which Barclay used to communicate with the northern signal box and the raincoat Barkley puts on to step out into the roaring night.

Tom McGovern in The Signalman. Photo by Leslie Black

But simple can be so very, very effective.

In the roaring of the wind, masking the steady drive of a steam engine, and with McGovern’s side-lit face looming out of the darkness, you begin to get the chill of all that Barclay experienced as he inched his way out onto the bridge, upon realising that the bell had not only failed to inform him of the train’s arrival at the other side, but that the connection was broken.

McGovern gives a multi-layered performance that first provides the framework of the signal box, then recalls the Dundee court where the young Barclay gave his witness in the face of those who sought to find someone to blame and then, within that witness, his recollection of the events of the night.

It’s clear why Arnott has chosen to share the play’s title with Charles Dickens’ celebrated horror story. Although this is factual with no prospect of a twist, ghoulish or otherwise, Arnott makes clever use of atmosphere and repetition in similar ways to those which makes ghost stories work.

The result is not only wonderfully chilling, but also has plenty to say on the nature of mortality and, in the light of modern enquiries into disasters, the ways in which society apportions blame.

Running time: 45 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED.
Tuesday 1 – Saturday 5 October 2019
Daily 1pm; Fri 7pm
Tickets and details:  Book here.


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