THEATRE / Out of steam: Paul Taylor sees The Ghost Train rolling on at the Lyric, Hammersmith

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The Independent Culture
Dramas such as Hamlet or Blithe Spirit, where the phantom revenants are meant to be bona fide, don't have as much disruption potential as the sort of play where the spooks turn out to lack the requisite credentials. The most famous of these is Arnold Ridley's much revived Twenties comedy-thriller The Ghost Train, which has been shunted out of its siding once again as this year's Christmas offering at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

By staging an entrance just as the goodies are drawing sighs of relief, a wraith could really put the cat among the pigeons here. In fact, while watching John Adams' likeable production, I found myself entertaining the fantasy - well, you had to do something with your mind - that the shade of Eamonn Andrews would shimmer in at the close, dressed as the legendary spectral station-master, singing 'Rock of Ages' and carrying a red book as well as a red lamp. This he would shyly hand to the actor playing the station-master, saying 'Bill Oddie, this is your life' - by which stage, of course, a change of tense might well be called for.

With its camped-up, freeze- frame cliffhangers at the end of each act, the atmosphere of jokey jumpiness it skilfully creates, and the sudden spoofy surges of orchestral urgency (there's a very funny one on the cry 'Bolshies]' together with a thunder-struck lighting-switch), Adams' production makes all the right moves, so I wish I could say I enjoyed myself more. The acting certainly has the necessary close-to-caricature edge, although for the first half of the play I thought Aden Gillett might be overdoing his disguise as a monocled, upper-class prat. You began to wonder why his fellow passengers, stranded supperless for the night in the rain tossed, haunted waiting room, did not think of turning to canibalism.

Richard Stirling and Kate Hardie are a delight as the innocent, gosh-I-say young newly weds, whose wedding night fails to reach its intended destination (so different those days from now when full-scale nookie on Network SouthEast causes less complaint than the post-coital Benson & Hedges).

But 'period charm' can often just be polite code for saying 'Well, it must have been charming once' and not all the respects in which The Ghost Train has dated are agreeable. There's an unpleasant smugness, for example, in the way the hauntings reduce Elsie (Catherine Russell), a young, independent-minded wife who wants out of her marriage, to a comic nervous wreck who says things like 'Oh, I've been such a fool, Dick. Such a fool.'

The main problem is that the play is neither funny or scary enough and though there are some good camp lines towards the end, the text is mostly feeble. The best dialogue I heard all night was in the interval. A man in his mid- sixties pointed to a picture of Selina Scott in the Standard. 'Real or false?' he asked his nonplussed wife. 'Her own or a wig? I say wig.' Wife: '??]]' Husband: 'She's the one who's had a brain op, isn't she?' Wife: ']]??'

Continues at the Lyric, Hammersmith, London W6 (081-741 2311).