David Hare’s play is more a curated collection of verbatim interviews relating to the privatisation of British Rail into Railtrack (for the track) and seven-year private franchises (for the trains).
It begins with the cast bustling up and down the improvised stage in The Vaults long black tunnel, with just four benches as set decoration. The words of those working with the new companies leads into the testimony of those involved with the four catastrophic crashes post-privatisation: Hatfield, Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Potters Bar.
It would be good to be able to call The Permanent Way a snapshot in history, locked back in 2003 when it was originally premiered. Sadly the concerns around cost-cutting, profiteering, and technical safety seem just as relevant today.
There are short engagements with families affected by bereavement or trauma relating to the crashes: the parents of Peter, whose body was “practically destroyed”, the man who travelled normally for a week or so before starting to have nighmares about train travel, the woman in the plastic mask who set up a survivors’ group but wished to exclude the negativity of the bereaved.
In this site-specific setting, with the rumble of overhead trains and even a slight leak from the torrential Sunday rain, the play feels tighter, sharper, and more emotionally engaging. True, the original cast had done the interviews so were more personally involved, but what we witness in The Vaults doesn’t feel like acting when it comes to witness testimony.
The John Prescott caricature has aged badly, adding a smidge of light relief where it doesn’t really belong; the same could be said of the tea ladies.. The carefully constructed mood of levity and despair is well-crafted (the rail boss who couldn’t care less, the financier who feels no guilt set against the grieving mother disgusted by an article by a survivor which talks of “human barbecue” and Nina Bawden, author, making sense of the violent end to “46 years together”).
The full ensemble – Lucas Hare, Jonathan Coote, Anna Acton (the financier), Sakuntala Ramanee, Paul Dodds, Tej Obano, Jonathan Tafler, Jacqui Dubois (the bereaved mother), Gabrielle Lloyd (the solicitor and Nina), act brilliantly throughout this revival, many in multiple and contrasting roles, while the dignity of survivors and the families of the bereaved is respected through the text, which drips with mounting sardonic anger.
The Permanent Way continues at the larger of the two theatres at The Vaults on Lancelot Street. It is directed by Alexander Lass.
Photo credits Tristram Kenton.