We enter the Park 200 theatre in a cloud of fog to visit the ‘bleakest most forlorn place on earth’, the Flannel Isle’s Lighthouse on Eilean Mor, 24 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. The keepers (‘wickies’) at this ‘stag’ lighthouse are down a man and so they are sent fisherman Thomas Marshall (Jamie Quinn) to make up the numbers. Thomas’s lack of even a proper raincoat leaves old hands Donald McArthur (Graeme Dalling) and James Ducat (Ewan Stewart) less than impressed with the ‘wee bairn’ they’ve been stuck with.
The general outline of Wickies is a true story. Three lighthouse men did vanish from Eilean Mor in December 1900. No trace of them was ever found, no explanation discovered. Paul Morrissey’s script expands this with hints of the supernatural, from ghost stories told by the men to a couple of (small) jump scares. His script is deliberately slow and steady, letting us spend time with the men to get just the tiniest glimpse into their daily life and routines. The never-ending lists of chores, the urgency to ALWAYS keep the light lit and the boredom and tedium. Shilpa T-Hyland’s direction uses all of this to superbly build an atmosphere; lonely, bleak, cold and wet, occasionally enlightened by old Scottish folk songs and illicit booze. The cast are strong, presenting a nice balance between their characters. Quinn brings laughs as Marshall learns the ropes, Stewart’s Ducat is tired and weary, having seen it all, while Dalling excels as McArthur, unsettled and with hints of rage and despair.
Wickies is notable for absolutely fantastic technical work. Zoë Hurwitz’s set design puts us right into the play’s single location, the lighthouse. The staging works with the design, using the entire set, and then some, with the cast initially entering through the audience, singing sea shanties and old Scottish folks songs. A spiral staircase hangs from the ceiling to show the way up to the lamp while a rickety ladder allows the cast to access the small space above the stage. Then the lighthouse towers above us all.
Sound design from Nik Paget-Tomlinson along with Niall Bailey’s music gives us an impressive soundscape of the sea and storms, and its superbly complemented by Bethany Gupwell’s lighting design. It all contributes to the atmosphere. There is a lot of subtlety in the technical work too, the lighting cleverly designed to use the absence of light, the dark and the shadows and the sound subtly and beautifully changing in line with the ending.
Each of the cast, with a theatrical donning of a coat, step into the characters of the men who arrived later to find the island deserted with no clue as to what happened to the original occupants. They read out actual entries from the abandoned logbook and the telegrams sent detailing the missing men. There is no tidy ending here for the vanished men. It’s much to the play’s credit that it doesn’t shy away the fact the mystery remains unsolved. Instead it does present one likely explanation, but it’s very much only a suggestion. Over a hundred years later it is clear that we will never know for sure what really happened. But who knows, maybe these wickies really did see something in a dark storm one night, something that came to find them?
Written by Paul Morrissey
Directed by Shilpa T-Hyland
Composer by Niall Bailey
Sound Designer by Nik Paget-Tomlinson
Set and costumes by Zoë Hurwitz
Lighting Design by Bethany Gupwell
Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor plays at Park Theatre until 31 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.