The Ghost Train at the Royal Exchange: A theatrical mystery

Polly Checkland Harding

Comic thriller The Ghost Train comes to the Royal Exchange theatre – bringing more than one riddle with it.

Boy, does the Royal Exchange like a challenge. Its beautiful, seven-sided theatre in the round – suspended from the great columns of a former Victorian trading hall – has recently played host to a giant, carnivorous plant, the Trojan war (including a wooden horse, of sorts), and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Next up for the circular space is 1920s comic thriller The Ghost Train: telling the story of a group of passengers stranded overnight in a supposedly haunted station, it’s a play that veers from chilling to superstitious to silly (think ghostly train drivers, sudden deaths and pet parrots) but that, ultimately, entails a huge challenge in terms of staging.

This play veers from chilling to superstitious to silly

So how do you represent a phantom train on stage? In the Royal Exchange’s recent production of Anna Karenina, flat carriages rolled in and out on tracks that crossed the stage. This gave the feel of a train, but couldn’t carry the drama – fundamental to the story – of two people being killed beneath the wheels. However, hope, in looking forward to this new production, comes from the theatre company behind it. Described as “a group famous for its ingenuity” in the Financial Times, Told by an Idiot won a five-star review from the Independent for its previous production at the Exchange, You Can’t Take It With You.

Writer of The Ghost Train Arnold Ridley – who also played the elderly Private Charles Godfrey in Dad’s Army – was inspired to pen the script after being stuck in a Bristol train station, and noticing that the positioning of the railway tracks meant that trains could approach and leave the station without being seen. Co-founder of Told by an Idiot, and director of this production, Paul Hunter has intimated that more of this kind of phenomenon than you would expect might actually appear before the audience. “The challenge of staging action that would normally happen off stage, and of using every inch of that extraordinary space, will be really thrilling,” he says. How exactly they’re going to pull this off remains to be seen. But I’m intrigued. Aren’t you?

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