The Permanent Way - Review

David Hare has created a powerful piece of "verbatim theatre" that deals with the privatisation of railways and subsequent train crashes – Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, and Potters Bar. A wide range of statements from Ministers etc and accounts from survivors and the bereaved form the narrative with Hare providing the links. Many of the first hand accounts arose from interviews carried out by the actors in the original National Theatre production.

The early humour that poked fun at the private sector's officials and the Treasury and Civil Service's enthusiasm for privatisation, despite lack of knowledge of running a railway, soon evaporated as the horror of the crashes flashed up through projected vivid footage and ear shattering sound effects. The buffoons became villains.

The shocking visual images and horrendous sounds heightened the narratives especially the heart wrenching ones from the "victims" - a term used by officials that both survivors and bereaved found offensive.

What was surprising to learn were the different attitudes of the two parties - the bereaved seeking someone to blame and punish whilst the survivors just wanting someone to say sorry and to ensure that these accidents never happened again. A vain hope for, as one character points out, a repeat pattern emerges – accident; inquiry; recommendations – no action.

A cast of ten switched characters seamlessly and their excellent performances and collective effort makes individual naming invidious. Every actor had a chance to make an impact especially when they stood in the limelight with heartbreaking monologues, angry tales or self serving excuses, bland platitudes or attempts to shift the blame.

Still vivid in the memory are the stories of:

The young man who went straight on to work after a crash and whose life only changed for the worst three month after when the realisation of what he had been through kicked in;

The bereaved mother determined to campaign long after her husband wanted to draw a line;

The Transport Policeman whose initial indifference changed to a crusade for change that was so frustrated by officialdom that he gave up and resigned;

The young lady whose facial injuries were so bad that she had to wear a plastic mask and who had to hide for five days when her picture was splashed all over the newspapers;

The writer, Nina Bawden, unconscious after the crash and the moving account of the loss of her husband who she never saw die.

...and many more.

What the cast and director, Kirsty Elmer, produced was a mesmerising experience that showed ensemble playing at its very best. They were a company who successfully accomplished, collectively and individually, every demand made upon it.

It was not just the words that had a powerful effect but also the dumb show and mime taking place in the background- slow motion and frozen action. No set was needed just an acting space and a raised platform bestrewn with rubbish and used rail tickets. The programme in the style of a timetable was an inspired touch as was the use of station tannoy announcements and instructions to the audience.

February 2012 marks the tenth anniversary of my writing reviews for New Venture. This production was a fitting celebration as it summed up what I have seen over the years – high quality acting and challenging productions.

It was particularly pleasing to see in the cast so many familiar and respected faces – Sheelagh Baker, Carl Boardman, Lyn Snowden (Fernee), Nik Hedges and Janet Hewlett Davies. My thanks go to them, their newer colleagues and to all those, on stage and off, who have over the last decade given so much pleasure to me.

Barrie Jerram
21 February 2012