REVIEW – GHOSTS ON A WIRE – UNION THEATRE

Commissioned for the Totally Thames Festival, this new work by Linda Wilkinson about the creation of London’s first coal-powered electric plant is perplexingly short of spark itself. Scenes unfold as quick brushstrokes. The script feels like a sketchy, whistle-stop tour through the major socio-political issues of the late 19th/early 20th centuries rather than a complex study. Dialogue has the feel of dry recitation.

Credit: Martin Butterworth

Southwark, the enclave of the poor and destitute, is chosen to host the gargantuan goliath of the electric works. Housing must be cleared to accommodate the building, with promises from the business consortium (and MP’s) that displaced persons will be reinstated and that all will share in the better conditions to follow. People’s lives are trampled and destroyed as the toxic belch of dust and soot pervades the area. The affluent North Bank reaps the benefits of the new age of light while their Southern brethren remain in the dark choking on the fumes of an infernal machine. Consigning the befouling source of their comfort to the other side of the river the North need not be bothered by blight.

Octavia Hill (Gerri Farrell), who went on to found the National Trust, campaigned for the rights of the poor to breathe clean air, enjoy green space and have habitable homes. So influential was she, that the business interests were concerned enough to seek counsel with her as a liaison to the residents of Southwark. She’s a smart, shrewd and resolute adversary who will not be manipulated by the sweet-talking corporate and political functionaries. She is determined to do what she can do to soften misfortune. Unfortunately, characterisations tend towards the broad which compromises the ability of the work to find suitable dimension. The working class are saintly and hard-working, and the leisure class are hissingly contemptuous Etonian blowhards who view the less fortunate as playthings to exploit and control. They scoff at their duty of care. Consideration of the poor, if they bother to think of them at all, is as objects of derision or affront. A scene staged at a private members club is particularly pitched at a level of pantomime. Ditto a comically overwrought sequence at a seance and a bizarre sudden knockabout turn into a knees-up singalong. The script isn’t multifaceted enough to balance all the turns of tone. 

Major notable personages haunt the fringes of the script, including Mary Shelley who prophesied the Modern Prometheus decades before the advent of electricity in Frankenstein, exposing man’s hubris and lack of carelessness with his creations. William Blake wanders in a glorious fog of romantic imagination, commenting on the disruptive disquiet of advancement. A concomitant spiritualist movement arises in response to the anxieties progress invokes.  

This is the rare occasion where a longer running time would be welcomed. Wilkinson races through scenes as if given directives to be brief. What is sacrificed is a more measured, complicated investigation of the market forces surrounding social and industrial change. The tapestry of individuals who drive, strive and squabble with opposing agendas to effect development. Social reform tangling with unregulated corruption. Benefits and deficits all at once. Change may be brutal and unfair but cannot be impeded. 

The stage never feels inhabited despite the hard-working actors most of whom assume multiple roles (sometimes within the same sequence). There is the tendency to tell rather than show. Farrell as Octavia generates warmth and rectitude, although intriguing aspects of her life are briefly addressed then dropped, details that could provide a greater sense of who she was outside of the central imperatives of the narrative. Ali Kemp brings fire and resilience to her publican wife (and tender chemistry with husband Andrew Frettes) and poise as a patron of the arts and essayist, but most of the cast are asked to perform at a flat theoretical level. The interchanges that work the best are the intimate dialogues in more domestic arrangements, between husband and wife at the pub prior to opening, between Octavia and her live-in companion in the quiet of evening. 

Credit: Martin Butterworth

The conclusion, all ghosts gathered on stage staring into an uneasy future, speculate as to the even greater upheavals to come. The constant is eruptive change. World Wars, the Holocaust, pandemics, the emergence of nuclear power, the World Wide Web, fracking. The poor will remain victims in the class wars. Climate will continue in crisis worn by man’s greed. And each advancement will bring with it both comfort and trepidation. It is ever thus. That the audience watches this from a rail archway in Southwark, in the very area where this story takes place, lends the viewing a specific frisson. We are all of us a part of the process. The greatest asset of the production is some lovely rear-wall projection which often cycles to a sparkling image of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a stalwart witness to the march and surpass of time.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
Ghosts On A WireUnion TheatreUntil 8th October

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{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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