First published in The Times, Monday September 27 2021
This is not the first time that Peter Arnott, the prolific Scottish dramatist, has explored the Tay Bridge disaster of December 28, 1879. Tay Bridge, his 2019 play, gave voice to some of those who lost their lives when the original Tay Rail Bridge collapsed during a storm, killing all onboard the Burntisland-to-Dundee train, which was crossing at the time. The series of vivid monologues combined to create a broader picture of late 19th century Scottish society.
The Signalman, Arnott’s beautifully rendered companion piece, which premiered as part of Òran Mór’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint series in 2019, has a much tighter focus but is no less haunting or resonant. Ken Alexander’s production – the first on the main stage at Perth Theatre in 18 months – features a brilliantly sustained performance from Tom McGovern as Thomas Barclay, the railway signalman who happened to be on duty on the night of the tragedy and waved the train onto the bridge.
In an atmosphere of charged intimacy, McGovern’s Barclay, now in his 60s, some 40 years on from the night in question, but still spry, still discharging the duties of a signalman with almost mechanical efficiency, buttonholes us to recount his version of the disaster and its aftermath. The story begins quietly and with a degree of wry humour, including a reference to William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster, the doggerel poem that remains the most famous artistic response to the event. This gentle opening gradually gives way to something rawer, more discomfiting and truly chilling. As Barclay proceeds to describe his lonely foray onto the track in search of the missing train, all of his unresolved guilt and a sense of horror that verges on the numinous seems to rise off him and wrap itself around us.
The show runs to less than an hour but its canvas is surprisingly broad, the playwright passing a sardonic glance over the inquiry that followed the disaster while reflecting on the nature of blame and chance, and the revisionism that inevitably follows any public event. Arnott’s script includes moments of fierce poetry that are complemented in Alexander’s well-paced production by Wayne Dowdeswell’s exquisite lighting and a subtle, slow-building soundtrack by Jon Beales.
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