Steamy scenes – trains in theatre
11th Apr 2016
You can’t see the steam train that comes to a halt, hissing and clanking, in the middle of the auditorium during All That Fall – theatre-goers are blindfolded throughout. But you’d swear it was there, thanks to Dyfan Jones’ nine-directional sound design.
Beckett’s radio play tells the story of a woman’s arduous journey to a rural station to meet her blind husband, and the train’s mysterious delay. Its director, Max Stafford-Clark, is a big train aficionado (an impressive model railway takes up his spare bedroom).
Trains cast a strong spell– steam trains especially. Railway and miniature railway expert Tim Dunn suggests “They’re the closest we’ve come to creating life; and the need all the elements – fire, air, water and coal from the earth.”
Here are some other wheeled stars of the stage:
THE RAILWAY CHILDREN
York Theatre Royal teamed up with the city’s National Rail Museum for this successful adaptation of E. Nesbit’s novel, in a production whose undoubted star is a real steam train which chugs into the theatre. The show, staged around a railway track, moved to the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station before arriving at Kings Cross in a purpose built theatre.
A sort of gender-reversed Cinderella story (it was actually more… complicated than that, gender-wise: engines were male, coaches were female), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s musical pitted an underdog steam engine against arrogant and cheating electric and diesel engines in a racing competition. Choreographer Arlene Phillips sent the cast hurtling around a transformed Apollo Victoria theatre that was kitted out with multi-level tracks and a huge, moving bridge by the designer-supreme of 80s behemoth musicals John Napier. For a show that romanticised old technology it wasn’t shy about embracing the shiny and new. As such it’s unlikely to have a fringe theatre revival any time soon – but we’re only saying that in the hope that someone is inspired to try it. Roller Disco anyone?
PRAIRIE DU CHIEN
Another piece that was first written for radio, David Mamet’s claustrophobic, creepy one-act play is set on a night train crossing Wisconsin in 1910. As his fellow passengers gamble over an increasingly fraught game of cards, a travelling salesman recounts a story of murder and jealousy with a paranormal twist.
Set entirely on a New York subway car, Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play (written under his birth name, LeRoi Jones), uses a charged encounter between a white woman and a black man to look at race relations. A 2013 revival was staged in the Russian and Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village, performed by skimpily glad actors to bathrobed audience members.
THE PERMANENT WAY
One of the most successful stage documentaries, David Hare’s verbatim play (for Out of Joint and the National Theatre) examined the 1990s privatisation of Britain’s railways and its consequences, as told through the series of four rail crashes that happened in its wake. “Like Groundhog Day” was the memorable, chilling observation. William Dudley’s set featured metal railway gantries framing a giant screen that initially brought to charming life an old steam railway poster (cue affectionate gasps from the audience); became an increasingly ominous departure board; and appeared to smash to pieces as a CGI train crashed through it while coming off the rails.
THE GHOST TRAIN
[SPOILER ALERT] Arnold Ridley’s 1923 thriller is set in the waiting room of a remote station, supposedly haunted by a ghost train that dooms anyone who sees it to death. It turns out that the train is real, and being used to smuggle arms (Enid Blyton used a similar device in her Famous Five novel Five Go Off To Camp). Ridley was inspired to write it after being stranded overnight at a station.
Marlane Mayer’s play is about a young woman who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of fame, and achieves it – by becoming a porn star. It opens with her arrival by train at the Los Angelis train terminal.
Kneehigh theatre company brought Noel Coward and David Lean’s iconic station romance to life in an production at Cinema Haymarket, in which live actors interacted magically with newly-shot film footage.
All That Fall plays at the Arts Theatre, West End, from 13 April to 14 May 2016 following sell-out performances at Wilton’s Music Hall and Bristol Old Vic.