Simon Ward reviews Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor at The Park Theatre
One chilling aspect of Paul Morrissey’s suspenseful new thriller is that it is based on a true story. On 26th December 1900, a relief ship designated to bring supplies and take one of the crew back to the mainland arrived at Eilean Mor, one of the Flannan Islands in the remote Outer Hebrides. We come upon the scene just as the ship’s crew did – an empty lighthouse kitchen where dim lights burn. The three lighthouse men are nowhere to be found and, most importantly, the light has gone out. As the sailors attempt to piece together what led to the mysterious disappearance, we move back a few weeks in time to meet the lighthouse crew.
It is a bleak, chilly and foggy interior, beautifully rendered by set designer Zoe Hurwitz. The action revolves around the kitchen table. Here, a picture emerges of the relentless challenge of life in such unforgiving surroundings, so far away from the comforts of home and family. For this is a ‘stag’ lighthouse – men only – not run by a family as was often the case elsewhere. So we meet the two established crew members – James Ducat (Ewan Stewart) and Donald MacArthur (Graeme Dalling) – who are reluctantly obliged to introduce a newcomer, Thomas Marshall (Jamie Quinn), to the routines essential to maintaining their primary objective – to keep the light shining.
The name ‘wickie’ derives from the need to trim the wick of the lighthouse lamp, one of many daily tasks to be undertaken without fail. As Thomas Marshall observes, it is difficult to understand why anyone would do it. It falls to the old hand, James Ducat, to explain the satisfaction in delivering a vital service, and one, moreover, that represents humanity at its best: being kind to each other just because it is the right thing to do. Donald MacArthur more cynically observes that the job simply involves ensuring that people you will never meet can sleep slightly more soundly on ships you will never see. Marshall, at first disarmingly positive, struggles to come to terms with the life, and the cold, and can never get to sleep. This makes him all the more susceptible to the various gruesome myths and tales told by his colleagues as the mind plays tricks in the dark, cold and dank atmosphere conjured so well by assured lighting (Bethany Gupwell), Niall Bailey’s music and Nik Pagett-Tomlinson’s sound design.
Director Shilpa T-Hyland keeps tension building leading up to the interval. There is a clever device where the actors, by donning new coats, transform into expert witnesses at the coming fruitless investigations of what might have happened. The potential for three men of quite different characters to irritate each other beyond endurance is exploited to the full. And as the ghosts of the crew’s tales appear to spring to life, John Bulleid delivers some very convincing, and frightening, illusions. After the interval the pace quickens and the thrills heighten as the men increasingly unravel. But we never get a definitive answer as to what happened. There is a plausible outline of what might have been. But the possibility of evil simply seeping into the very walls of the lighthouse is never entirely forgotten.
Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor is running at Park 200, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP until 31st December 2022