The Stationmaster – Tristan Bates Theatre

Nigel Richards and Emily Bull in The Stationmaster at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London. Picture: Kim Sheard Photography

Nigel Richards and Emily Bull in The Stationmaster at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London. Picture: Kim Sheard Photography

The Stationmaster continues at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London until 15 November.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

Fear not! New musical theatre writing is alive and well at the Tristran Bates Theatre. Katy Lipson’s third season of From Page to Stage is as vital and successful as ever in allowing fledgling musicals crucial access to the audience they need to evolve, and this headline production by Tim Connor and Susannah Pearse has things off to a flying start.

We are in the Lake District, 1958. Our passionately dedicated Stationmaster, Tom, performs his duty to the letter, even in this, his 25th year. The community dotes upon him, and ostracises his troubled wife, Catherine, who does not fit the mould. One evening, Tom is led astray by a charismatic young woman, and in his distraction, forgets to set the signal, causing a tragic collision. The pair cover the mistake up, but retribution advances upon them throughout.

Split seconds after the collision, a stunning backdrop of items splintering in mid-air appear, looming suspended from that moment onwards, a macabre conscience nagging at our protagonists. It is a creative and absolutely fulfilling set which flirts outrageously with the cinematic lighting design.

The casting in this production is perfect. I was delighted to see not only superb leads and a ensemble suited perfectly to the facets required, but a cast of age-appropriate performers as opposed to artists ageing-up.

Nigel Richards is delightfully invested in his Kirby-ish Tom, settling well into the character, and sweeping us joyfully into his full-bodied tenor. If his acting occasionally loses nuance, it is found again whenever the melody kicks in – this is a voice under masterful control.

It is a shame, therefore, that we do not see enough of his character’s undulating conscience in Pearse’s book. As an audience member, I crave the sweet discomfort of empathising at times with our monster, fearing for his secret, and watching as time after time it inches closer to emerging – but this tangled web is too easily unravelled for a satisfying catharsis, and hides a seemingly irredeemable coward at the heart.

Less exciting is innate cowardice, more so is the building terror of lie upon lie as his image becomes endangered. A little more complexity in all of the characters might open up some avenues for potential and let the threads of plot weave together less predictably.

One of the most compelling characters seems to be Mrs Deakin, the stalwart matriarch of the town community, infuriatingly opinionated and sycophantic, played with a truly wonderful comedic zeal by Annie Wensak. I wait on the edge of my seat to watch her reaction as her hero falls, but again am denied the privilege of seeing her human side.

Also of note is a beautifully nuanced and understated performance by Jessica Sherman as Catherine. Her character is where the writing really takes flight, Sherman lifts this fragile but stoic identity into something truly mesmerising.

Tim Connor’s score is the type of music that you don’t hear properly until it’s already under your skin. A deeply atmospheric mix of silent film, golden age ballad and Steve Reich, it weaves through mumbling discordant jazzy consciences to epic, beaming torch numbers (the Act I finale is electrically good), to the perfect little harmony of the late 1950s provincial community. It keeps you exactly where it wants you. The downside to this is that it can sometimes feel a little too demanding, and without a strong melodic motif, burns out of the memory all too quickly.

This musical is well worth a visit It is a tense and moving production which holds an audience captivated. Yes, it could keep us guessing a little more, and a musical hook or two wouldn’t do any harm, but it will be fascinating to see how it evolves in its next incarnation.

Aura Simon

www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk

Readers may also be interested in:

From Page to Stage season – Sally Ann Triplett and David Burt among cast – News

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