One of the interviewees re-created on stage in The Permanent Way queries the invisible figure of author David Hare, "A play? You say a play? You don't think it's a book?" Watching the piece, you see his point. In some ways, Hare's project here has little to do with theatre; in others, it's the very stuff of it.
At root the piece is less concerned with telling a story than with putting its case, and less with persuading an audience round than with mobilising a feeling already deeply shared. Its position is simple: Britain's privatised railways are a mess, and more, a crime. The factual basis of this feeling may be open to question (see Robert Wright's piece which accompanied the original publication of thsi review), but it has nevertheless taken such deep root that it is now a defining national characteristic. It first manifests in the play text before a single word is uttered, with an allusion to one of those little linguistic hangnails that so irk us: the opening stage direction introduces "Nine people, once passengers, now customers".
Hare doesn't just want us to feel this way; he knows we do so already. He wants us to act on it, or to force action. Whether it be renationalisation or simply insisting that someone be held to public account for any of the last few years' series of rail disasters, we need (he implies) to be loud and stroppy until something is done.
Max Stafford-Clark directs this opening scene as classic rough-theatre agitprop. Amid ostentatious "we're on a train" miming, individual speakers pop out from behind newspapers, articulating everyday frustrations, but with particular emphasis on Lloyd Hutchinson asking incredulously why we aren't more violently angry. As with virtually every word of the hour-and-three-quarters-long play, it is written to be delivered straight to the audience rather than as onstage drama.
After a trio for the voices of those who handled the privatisation and a duet for the experienced British Rail management torpedoed by the shift to market imperatives, focus narrows in on the tragic litany of Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar. Voice is given to all sides: the bereaved, the survivors, British Transport Police, the managing director of Railtrack etc. But the blame is always just offstage: with maintenance contractors Jarvis, or with the justice system for bottling out of corporate manslaughter prosecutions, or just generally with an approach driven by the balance sheet.
Actually, that's not quite true. One bogeyman appears on stage, repeatedly but briefly. A number of other individuals are identifiable, given extrinsic knowledge or by noting oblique references in the text: Gerald Corbett, Richard Branson, solicitor Louise Christian, writer and Potters Bar survivor Nina Bawden, and so on. In the cast of characters, however, none is named; they are "a bereaved widow", "a leading entrepreneur" or whatever. There is one exception, one named major character, as (played again by Hutchinson) he bustles across the stage: John Prescott. But he's a pantomime villain, and of the bumbling rather than the sinister kind.
The play does what it's intended to. The cast of nine are sensitive and committed, with other admirable performances from Matthew Dunster, Bella Merlin and the radiantly good-hearted Kika Markham. The audience spontaneously applauds individual scenes, rather than lines or portrayals, in a manner more usual with show-stopping musical numbers. Hare taps into that part of the British psyche that has felt an affinity for railways ever since Stephenson paired the existing technologies of the steam engine and "the permanent way" of the title, and which feels abused and betrayed by the treatment of the sector in recent years. But, in a way, he falls prey to the same mentality he is condemning. This is written for the theatre not because it's the medium best suited to the material, but because it's the one that pays the desired (emotional) dividends biggest and fastest.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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