Venue: National Railway Museum
With a cast of 1 paid actor and over 200 local volunteers taking the audience through a winding tour around a lofty museum as they stumble into 6 snapshots of theatre which finishes in a full-length play… this collaboration between York Theatre Royal, Pilot Theatre and the National Railway Museum can’t be faulted for its ambition.
Beginning in the centre of the museum, a choir pipes up, announcing the entrance of the actor Ian Giles. However, this play isn’t about his character. Instead, the spotlight is on ‘Railway King’, George Hudson (George Costigan), a man you won’t have heard of. Eclipsed by the happier fate of George Stephenson (Giles) – who developed the steam trains that drove industrial Britain and… who you also probably haven’t heard of – Hudson is a critical figure of history that history would rather forget.
Locomotive Kingpin, poor-boy gone rich, his story is entered obliquely through the lives he changed from the county he transformed. The audience steps around disused steam-trains and sees the advertisement of shares, the economic transformation of two brothers, workers made redundant after a strike… and so on. These fragmented episodes, dotted around the museum and at times a little muted due to the muffled choir, all feed in to the main play, accessed in the second half. Inventive and clever, this works mainly for train enthusiasts and theatre fanatics, who get to see their respective fascinations up close.
It can’t hope to please everyone, but the result of all this effort is a drawn out performance, longer than entirely necessary, which might cut a portion of the public out: students. With screen-sized attention spans and underused limbs, most of us don’t want to be forced into exercise and be expected to take it all in. Further still, other than getting cheap tickets and trying to avoid having to sit next to the over-friendly passenger with limited spatial awareness, our interest in trains is pretty finite.
Having said that, it would be a shame to miss out on the 2nd half which is funny, politically astute and brilliantly written, brilliantly acted. Here, George Hudson’s story gets the exposure it wants. The play returns to a girl dressed as a boy (Charlotte Wood delivering an especially impressive performance) to get money for her addling family by working the trains with her Father. And so, Hudson’s insatiate hunger for faster trains and larger profits in the face of increased competition and industrial-scale gambling is shown to suffocate the masses rather than liberate their spending.
The Marxist core of the play seeps through further as two brothers (from part 1) eventually learn that being given access to a share in the wealth does not result in sharing the wealth, especially when you’re working-class and too niave to understand nascent economics. Had they known, they would have quit while ahead but as Hudson patronisingly says to them after they’ve lost everything, that’s just the way ‘the game’ works. And yet the rules of the game aren’t just passively accepted: ‘I don’t want any speculation’ says the train instructor as one of his drivers goes missing, ‘Yeah’, says a worker mockingly, ‘Speculation’s just for toffs’, drawing laughs from a crowd that is only too familiar with the costs of high-horse financial speculation.
Over the top of all of this resounds the dialogue of Stephenson and Hudson. The wiser man speaks with the voice of reason: that Hudson should be aiming for ‘Posterity, not temporary prosperity’ as he accumulates wealth… and stupidity. This continued dialogue is effective, providing firm structure for the play to lean on.
Contrary to the first part, the stage piece had more in common with the film Trainspotting than with the hobby. Not, of course, in the desperate scramble for drugs, but in the steady decay of its central characters. The trains (and so too the plot) lose their colourful, friendly majesty from the first part, stripped down to little more than a very well-executed powerful gesture: two wooden platforms, pushed and pulled across the centre of the fogged-up stage. The focus is deflected back onto the characters, showing how their lives crumbled at the hands of free-market fallout. After all, if there is a drug running through the veins of this play, inspiring its King, Hudson, to make ludicrously selfish decisions, it is money. Or, a word at the front of his vocabulary, the drug is also (appropriately) speed. The speed of growth; the speed of profit; the speed of transport, all portrayed as painfully uncontrollable by this huge, yet skillful, cast. There’s just one speed that George Hudson didn’t expect: the speed at which we forget what we’d rather not remember.