The Signalman

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Mary Brennan

five stars

On December 28th it will be 140 years since the Tay Rail Bridge disaster, when both the track and a passenger train plunged into the river below. Dundee Rep recently staged Peter Arnott’s Tay Bridge, which put persuasive flesh on dead bones. Now Oran Mor premieres what is an equally striking and effective companion piece: a monologue called The Signalman, in which – forty years after the tragedy – the signalman on duty that night relives events that have haunted him.

The narrative thread – developed from an original idea by actor Tom McGovern – is already vivid with dramatic horrors, but Arnott uses the facts to pick away at society’s culture of blaming and shaming. So even as McGovern (as the signalman, Thomas Barclay) re-enters that 1879 past, he’s providing contemporary parallels and the way the public – spoon-fed questionable details – seem abidingly unable to accept that accidents do happen... Someone has to be denounced as responsible. Was the violent storm that night an Act of God, sent to punish Sunday travellers? Or was the bridge itself unsafe? If so, who knew? Queen Victoria had trundled over the single-track spans just months before – albeit not in gale force winds.

As the memories flood back – not least of having to give evidence at the inquiry – McGovern’s whole body seems consumed by the storm that found the bridge wanting in resilient strength. He begins to question his every action as that 24-year old operative, taking us with him from the cosy regularity of his signalbox, out onto the pitch-dark track where he is at the mercy of the elements and his own all-engulfing fears. Every terrified stare, every shrinking in on himself, every rising inflection of panic at unseen perils appears innately real and in the moment to McGovern – and to us, too. Meanwhile director Ken Alexander’s instincts allow The Signalman’s emotional heft to build towards an ending that makes you want to weep.