Ghost Train has been a staple of repertory companies, both amateur and professional, since its premiere in the late 1920s.
Written by the actor/playwright most fondly remembered for his performance as Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army, this is a comedy-thriller with a preposterous plot involving a mysterious train, things that
go bump in the night, disappearing corpses, spies and disguises. It is a period piece with familiar characters – the
fop, the bourgeois married couple, forelock-touching railway officials – reflecting the class prejudices of the time.
The Ghost Train was filmed in the early 1940s with Arthur Askey in the title role
as a light-hearted diversion with passing references to the Nazi threat. In this version the spies were enemy agents plotting
to overthrow Winston Churchill’s government.
Despite its implausibilities, the play
offers a reassuring vision of a world where right always prevails, allowing people to get on with their lives. Teddy (Adam
Godley) might appear to be a fop, annoying his fellow-passengers with a constant stream of inane chatter; but this turns out
to be a disguise deliberately assumed for the purpose of catching the spies. It is chiefly down to his efforts that old Ms.
Brown (Ann Beach) can sleep peacefully throughout the night while the spies are chased, rounded up and taken away for questioning.
At the same time The Ghost Train explores
the psychological consequences of throwing a disparate group of people together in an isolated location with no prospect of
escape. Tempers become frayed, and the characters’ true natures are gradually revealed as they try and fail to come
to terms with their unnatural situation.
Marion Nancarrow’s 1997 revival proved
that the play still has the capacity to entertain contemporary listeners. The dialogue might appear somewhat stilted, with
characters responding to one another in a series of staccato phrases; but Ridley still includes some genuinely shocking moments
– for example, when the ghost train is heard starting up outside, and thereby fulfilling the station-master’s
doom-laden predictions. It certainly seems that the old theatrical warhorse will continue galloping across our stages for
a long time to come.