It’s always interesting how some small historical events can cast a long shadow. The unexplained mystery of the disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers (the ‘wickies’ of the title) in 1900 has captured the imagination ever since.
The real-life story goes that a passing steamer travelling from Philadelphia to Leith noted the Flannan Isles light was not operating despite the poor weather conditions. On Boxing Day, following some adverse weather, the lighthouse tender Hesperus was finally able to reach Eilean Mòr. When there was no reaction to the flare, relief lighthouse keeper Joseph Moore was sent to shore. In the lighthouse, he saw the clock in the kitchen had stopped, the table had been laid for a meal but there was no sign of any of the three wickies. The only other clue was a set of oilskins on the peg indicating that one of the lighthouse keepers would have ventured out in his shirt sleeves.
The mystery has fired up the creative imagination. Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote the poem Flannan Isle in 1912. Genesis recorded The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse for their first album in 1968. Tom Baker’s era of Doctor Who fictionalised the lighthouse mystery as the Horror of Fang Rock. And now Paul Morrissey has reimagined the tragedy as Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor, an atmospheric supernatural thriller that posits an explanation to the unsolved mystery.
Wickies opens with the arrival of the team sent to find out what’s happened at the lighthouse. The (in-part disputed) real-life journal entries from the time are used at the beginning and throughout, which help to anchor the story and add balance to the flashbacks. Paul Morrissey deftly employs these flashbacks to explore the possible explanations to the events leading up to the wickies disappearing.
With a swirl of coat changes, we go back in time and are introduced to the three wickies at the centre of the tale. James Ducat is the eldest of the three and Ewan Stewart brings a seasoned, if slightly wearied, gravitas to the senior keeper, who has demons from his past which are revealed as the story unfolds. Donald MacArthur, played with wonderful menace by Graeme Dalling, is also an experienced lighthouse keeper with a taste for a drink and a dislike for everyone. He has the kind of temperament that can and ,we are told, does turn easily to violence.
Then there is Thomas Marshall who is the-wet-behind-the-ears ‘bairn’ of the group. A fisherman by trade, Thomas is on his first tour of duty as a lighthouse keeper. We learn about the role of a wickie, along with the history and secrets of island through his eyes, as the others tell him the tragic, ghostly story of the island’s first lighthouse keeper whose daughter goes missing and wife apparently commits suicide. Jamie Quinn offers some fine comedic light relief to the claustrophobic gloom that dominates the piece.
As the days pass, the play’s tension is heightened and nerves become frayed by increasing strange goings-on, which could be the work of the supernatural or simply the result of sleep deprivation. Thomas, in particular, has trouble adapting to the prison-like confinement of lighthouse life. Paul Morrissey suggests the two elements wickies struggle with are the elements and themselves.
The production leans heavily on a the supernatural angle and has a well-measured sense of increasing foreboding and unease. This is beautifully amplified with Bethany Gupwell”s evocative lighting, haunting sea shanties and the occasional stage illusions to scare the audience.
However the play never fully commits to any particular theory or cause to the mystery and in the final flash forward scenes, we are presented with one of the more credible, if not extraordinary, explanation to the final moments of the men.
Wickies strikes the balance between illuminating the historic details of the real-life disappearance and delivering plenty of dramatic intrigue as to what may have occurred on Eilean Mòr in December 1900.
An eerie exploration of a haunting real-life mystery – ★★★★ (4 stars)