Manchester Royal Exchange
Opened 27 March, 2000

I was astounded, when sitting down to write this review, to look at the programme for The Ghost Train Tattoo and see two dialect coaches credited. Perhaps I have a tin ear, but it seemed to me when watching Braham Murray's production of Simon Robson's family drama that it was a major flaw that a play so obviously written with regional voices in mind (it is set in the penumbra of Swindon) was played so thoroughly in Received Pronunciation. Only one secondary character seemed to have any regionalism to her voice; for the rest, it almost felt as if, when central character Freddy's father moved away from the family home and remarried, he had simply relocated from Hampstead Village a bit further down Frognal, with the Ghost Train pub being situated perhaps somewhere on the Finchley Road.

This is a pity, as Robson's script is quietly remorseless in depicting the war of attrition that can be family life. Scarcely a single line in over two hours does not wound some member or other, whether intentionally or not. Father George's clumsy, self-hating assertions of "tough love", Samaritan mother Margaret's cold war of non-directiveness, stepmother Anna's attempts to stamp herself upon the family unit, elder brother Mark's constant rebellion against dad, sister Jenny's bulimia and incestuous longings, Freddy's own refuge in music and the house of a favourite teacher (and the resulting tension between the two of them)... it never lets up for a moment, except during the scene changes which periodically upset the flow of events on stage.

The twin threads of the story are set seven years apart, but in the interim only two characters seem to have palpably developed: Gabrielle Drake's Anna progresses from the brittle, tentative "other woman" to the commander and agenda-maker of the second family, and Joseph Murray's Freddy acquires insight far beyond his years, principally in order that he can, as a seventeen-year-old, nevertheless hold a conversation of equals with teacher Julia (Margo Gunn) in the central duologue articulating his own inner state. This sense of stasis, though, may be more director Murray's responsibility than author Robson's. It may have been Murray's intention (as the play runs in repertoire with Fiona Padfield's Snapshots, another drama of young people and family pressures) to show that even the superficially smoothest-running families can be concealing discreet fields of blood, but a little less poise and decorousness in the level of behaviour as a whole would not go amiss.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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