The Permanent Way (The Vaults)

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.

Cast of The Permanent Way
Cast of The Permanent Way

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.

Cast of The Permanent Way

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”).

Cast of The Permanent Way
Cast of The Permanent Way

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.

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Shida (The Vaults)

There are one-person shows, and there is Shida. I went in fresh to this, knowing only it was a musical devised, written and performed by Jeannette Bayardelle.

The story of Shida, one character of many in this short (75 minute) piece, is a familiar one of innocence and knowing, rise and fall, ambition and pain, and ultimate survival.

Jeannette Bayardelle in Shida.

When we first meet her, she’s a child, playing hopscotch, a whirlwind of energy which her mom, her teacher, and new best friend Jackie have to keep grounded. Her destiny as a bright and precocious child is to be a writer.

Men mistreat her. Daddy has another four children with a wife, with Shida and her mom as “the other woman/the other girl”. Uncle Steve stands too close and ignores pleas not “to touch me like that”. White boyfriend Joe gets her hooked to her crack pipe.

Shida tells its story through song and characters, with the intensity of being right there in the room as events happy and traumatic chip away to reveal the vulnerable core beneath.

There in the room with Uncle Steve. There in the hospital three pivotal times. There on the streets, as Bayardelle breaks the fourth wall twice: one as Jackie, rubbishing Shida’s dalliance with a butch lesbian, then as Shida herself, begging tricks.

Jeannette Bayardelle in Shida.

Shida is an incredible piece of writing, years in the making and developed by the leading lady with her director Andy Sandberg. Accompanied by MD Noam Galperin and a small band, there is nowhere to hide in this boutique venue. The music is loud. The singing is jaw-dropping. The plot is emotionally devastating, in the end.

I’m glad this made the transition from New York, although I still find the venue a bit odd and definitely laidback (the matinee started fifteen minutes late and no reason was given). The use of props for characters: patterned skirt, dress, grad cap, beanie hat, specs, a box, a bracelet, a shawl, a book, brings the women to life. The men are voiceless.

But it was worth it. As Ms Bayardelle herself said in a brief break of character for a pause and water, “Jesus, this is hard work!”. It shows in every sinew, every bead of sweat and every big, big note.

True stories: Jackie/Jeannette did become a great singer, and her friend Shida conquered her demons.

Shida continues at The Vaults until 13 October.

Bare: a Pop Opera (The Vaults)

To reach The Vaults performance space you venture down the graffiti tunnel at Leake Street, then into one of the arches and through an unsteady route to the bar.

Poster for Bare: a Pop Opera
Poster for Bare: a Pop Opera

Bare: a Pop Opera isn’t on in the theatre, but instead in an extension of the bar space with a long stage in the shape of a T. From my section, the ‘red’ seats (the perks of the press), there isn’t much turning required to see everything, but the cheaper ‘yellow’ section must miss bits or see a lot of backs of heads.

So, settling down on a plastic chair with the rumble of trains passing from Waterloo, the set I see is simple – religious paintings, chairs, a tree. The lights are purple, there are church chants. We’re in a Catholic school with teenagers about to graduate – Peter, Jason, Ivy, Matt, Nadia and others.

Mark Jardine as Peter, Darragh Cowley as Jason
Mark Jardine as Peter, Darragh Cowley as Jason

Over the next two and a half hours we watch them pray, party, fall in love, struggle with their identities, and eventually deal with the catastrophe of a loss they can only just comprehend.

Songs (by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo) and scenes stand out – Nadia, a little large, who wants to be pretty (she is, reminding me of Mama Cass); Peter, trying to confide in his mum over the phone (“his father will die … where was the warning?”); Matt, who loves Ivy, but she looks right through him: Ivy, outwardly confident but “only a girl”; and Jason, our Romeo who wants things “best kept secret”.

Lizzie Emery as Ivy
Lizzie Emery as Ivy

There’s the sister, too (Stacy Francis), appearing in a dream like a Supreme as the Virgin Mary, then reminding Peter that as conflicted and ashamed as he may be for loving another boy, “God don’t make no trash”. The priest is less helpful, preaching doctrine that it is best “not to question”.

This show has had a long genesis – it debuted in 2000 in Los Angeles and eventually evolved into Bare: the Musical in 2012. The original version, which we see here at The Vaults, feels timeless, without the clutter of social media or the opening out of the book.

Georgie Lovatt as Nadia, Lizzie Emery as Ivy
Georgie Lovatt as Nadia, Lizzie Emery as Ivy

Bare: a Pop Opera is almost completely sung-through, with more than thirty songs of different types. For me, the second act was stronger with less ensemble numbers (the sound in the venue is a problem with multiple singers), but there are fine performances throughout.

The use of Romeo and Juliet as a framing device, the end-of-term play, gives a chance for the Queen Mab speech to be incorporated, and the suicide by poison, this time for the love of a boy.

Romeo and Juliet sequence
Romeo and Juliet sequence

Parallels with Spring Awakening feel inevitable, but I feel that had a more focused book throughout (although Bare, with its tree and pictures of children who struggled too long with their sexuality and perceptions of others, has the more emotional ending).

Julie Atherton’s direction makes the most of the stage space available – although there is at least one scene change that drags – and in the cast there are several young names to watch: Daniel Mark Shand (Peter), Georgie Lovatt (Nadia), Tom Hier (Matt) especially impressed me, but the whole cast are good.

Bare: a Pop Opera continues at The Vaults until 4 August.

Photo credits – Tom Grace.