Julian Eaves reviews David Hare’s The Permanent Way now playing at The Vaults Theatre in Waterloo.
The Permanent Way
The Vaults Theatre
20th September 2019
This is a timely and high-quality revival of David Hare’s excoriating verbatim docu-drama about the string of fatal incidents on the railways during the early years of re-privatisation. A blindingly vicious portrait of sloppy governance and careless indifference to human suffering, it is even more horribly relevant today than when it first appeared at the National Theatre at the turn of the Millenium. Producer Debbie Hicks has mounted a handsomely cast and well-directed production (by Alexander Lass) that would look good in the theatre from which it sprang; and nestling beneath the 19th century brick arches that support the largest terminus in the UK network, it feels doubly at home, and apt – a metaphor for national decay and moral degeneration.
The railway is one of the more celebrated, if accidental, achievements of the industrial revolution: devised to expedite the removal of coals from northern collieries and keep the burgeoning capital warm in winter, the bright idea that someone had to use it not only for haulage but also for paying passengers literally created the engine which, nearly two centuries later, is still transforming the world. But Hare is not concerned with a longitudinal study of technological innovation. His chief interest lies in the catalogue of accidents and neglect that caused unprecedented loss of and damage to human life in the immediate aftermath of the selling-off of the British Rail assets. And, above all else, he is here to itemise the callous indifference and laziness of governments (Tory and Labour) when responding to one catastrophe after another, apparently incapable of comprehending the personal torment caused by them. His target, therefore, here and so often elsewhere in his work, is a ruling class that is incompetent and slapdash, and quite unqualified to offer humane leadership and direction.
Drawn into a central rectangular space (design, Ruth Hall), nine actors form a kind of chorus out of which emerge, here and there, recognisable individuals – many of them famous, some notorious – to tell ‘David’ (the only audience ever identified) the gruesome tale of how a once-great industry drove itself into one bloodbath after another, as the programme illustration tells us, putting profit before passengers. Lass marshals his ensemble well, moving them from one character to another, encompassing dozens of individual speaking roles, tidily and mainly unfussily lit by Rick Fisher and to music and sound by Roly Witherow; there is also some intriguing movement by Sian Williams, perfectly designed to help direct our focus to where it is needed most. So, this isn’t conventional drama, but neither is it dry reportage.
The writing is vividly dynamic, allowing these wonderful performers to become and do wildly different things. Anna Acton is one moment an investment banker and in another a bewildered bereaved mother. Jonathan Coote takes on the civil service – to comic effect – and senior operating rail executives. Paul Dodds is odiously pompous as Two-Jags Prescott and even more repellent as a sashaying, New Age jargon-spewing Richard Branson. Jacqui Dubois turns in some classy work as the bereaved mother we get to know the best, and – like the rest of the cast – can merge into a chorus of commuters or rail workers at will. Lucas Hare is good as several voices of authority. Gabrielle Lloyd shines in particular as another survivor, elevating into something akin to Greek tragedy the raw, exposed language provided by the original interviews conducted by author and cast from Out of Joint (then directed by Max Stafford-Clark). The implacable unavoidability of disaster and the dignity and nobility of human endurance of it seems to be Hare’s ultimate theme.
Strongly supporting this are Tej Obano’s roles as a PTSD-suffering survivor and as a divinely inspired pastor, come to offer spiritual succour to those afflicted by the crashes. Equally, Sakuntala Ramanjee offers a graceful and delicate representation of a celebrated burns patient, who had to wear a mask while her skin tried to grow back (another Greek reference?). Lastly, Jonathan Tafler is elegant in a position of bourgeois power and devastatingly broken as a bereaved father. And, they all get to play many, many more parts. It is a verbally spirited performance if lacking in theatrical variety: a few benches get moved about a fair bit, but really nothing much actually ‘happens’ on this stage. Lass is ingenious in moving his pieces, but he can’t quite overcome a sense of stasis and inertia.
Yet, as the country itself careers headlong into yet another train wreck, the revival of this work could not have come at a better time. ‘I believed in goodness’ is a refrain heard again and again by those who have seen how little goodness is to be had from those in control when they have something to lose: callow self-interest is all they find themselves receiving from the wielders of authority in this country. The heartbreak is felt by those who had hopes for a better life, and who lost them as a result of persistent neglect and mismanagement, cost-cutting and failure to tackle reported problems. In that sense, this drama has lost none of its conviction or force. The illusions of today may be different, but they are every bit as fragile and prone to collapse. If in doubt, just watch what is happening to the country now, and reflect on how things further develop over the coming weeks and months.
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