The privatisation of the railways: how could this make for nearly two hours of exciting theatre? I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered. Playwright David Hare, director Alexander Lass, and a cast of flexibly talented actors hand me the answer: it’s about the people. The Permanent Way gives a space to those voices previously unheard in this tale of restructure and tragedy. I promise it’s intriguing and charming.
This is verbatim theatre, so the words of the play are directly quoted from Ware’s interviews with people connected to the railways. When it works – when the interviewee uses a hilariously cynical comparison or a strangely personal metaphor – it can be more effective than anything the playwright could have written by himself: we laugh at the wonder of people. But there is a caveat: not all real people make good or exciting characters. Not all real people articulate their experiences in a way that will work for the stage. This is where the playwright comes in. He has to break apart and piece back together the words of his interviewees: he has to turn them into a compelling story for the stage. Ware interweaves monologues to create theatrical pace; he guides one story into another; he merges voices or makes them stand out from one another. Most of the time, it works. Sometimes a monologue is still too full of the unedited original speaking: it could be slicker, less technical or even shorter. Almost all of the interviewees have been transformed into theatrical characters: but I think Ware could still go further.
I can only describe Lass’s direction as brilliant. There might not be much space for props in the Vaults Theatre but Lass is unperturbed as he has his actors move around, behind, in front of, beside one another, creating space where we didn’t think there was any and drawing even more attention to the fact that each character almost always seems invisible to the others on stage. In this play, everyone is waiting. Actors and characters wait their turn to speak, sitting on the station benches, as this mass of individual stories, conflicting and supporting, and benign and confrontational opinions floods onto the stage. Lass makes the most of the difficult, rectangular space of the Vaults, ordering his actors into lines which perfectly craft the shape of the courtroom or the Railtrack workers’ production line, and positioning the narrating government figures in the corners, critically set apart from the grit of the action.
This play demands flexibility from its actors; and it is clear that Lass has chosen this group because of their ability to switch quickly between completely different characters. Gabrielle Lloyd is the most impressive in this sense: she plays both a campaigning solicitor and bereaved widow Nina with confidence and poise. Her depiction of the impossible pain of loss brings a complete silence over the audience. Anna Acton captures perfectly the nuance of a bereaved mother whose grief boils over into anger. Paul Dodds, although he doesn’t have the long speeches of some of the other characters, manipulates his facial expressions and body language until the audience is laughing every time he steps on stage (or at least, in the case of his John Prescott character, knowingly nodding their heads). Not all of the characters are played with such subtlety, but perhaps it is exactly because the authority figures are so uncomfortably one-dimensional that they are so perfectly accurate.
Verbatim theatre is difficult, but the cast and crew of The Permanent Way do a fabulous job. Wry humour gives way to financial realism that gives way to heart-breaking tragedy within the space of 100 minutes. In the black underground space of the Vaults, even the at-first-unconvinced audience is swept along by the flow.
The Permanent Way is playing The Vaults until 17 November. For more information and tickets, visit The Vaults website.