Beat the Devil review – Bridge Theatre

My first indoor theatre experience after lockdown was, perhaps inevitably, this Covid-19 monologue written by David Hare about his own experience of having the virus.

To make this play possible, the Bridge Theatre has had the majority of its seats removed, enabling a masked audience to sit in socially isolated clusters. And it works. It feels safe. One hopes it will prove a viable model for other theatres to follow suit.

Hare’s rage-filled, and often very funny, script is brought to life by Ralph Fiennes on a simple set that consists of little more than a desk and chair. In a blue shirt and jeans, often with his hands on his hips, Fiennes is an engaging and likable narrator for this pandemic diary packed with politics and polemic.

Unsurprisingly, Hare directs much of his anger at the government’s handling of the crisis, and makes some fascinating points about the ministerial use of language; but what struck me most about this play was that it was the first time – despite all the blanket media coverage and survivors’ stories – that I had a genuine sense of what it must be like to have the virus invading your body.

Hare doesn’t skimp on the detail, and Fiennes gets to deliver delicious lines about food tasting like “sewage” and his skin turning the “colour of Bela Lugosi”. There are touching, intimate descriptions too – such as the moment when Hare’s wife Nicole places herself on top of him like a duvet in an attempt to cool his fever.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, and running for just under an hour, this is a simple, beautifully written piece, that really helped me take stock of the extraordinary events of the last few months.

Unlike the pandemic, I didn’t want it to end.

Beat the Devil is at the Bridge Theatre in London on assorted dates until 31 October

The Permanent Way review – The Vaults

4 star review

Sometimes plays are staged in perfect places, and here’s a first class example.

This revival of David Hare’s scathing examination of railway privitisation takes place in the tunnels under London’s Waterloo Station, and is soundtracked by the constant rumbling of trains overhead.

The play consists almost entirely of first-hand accounts of people involved in British Rail’s privatisation in the mid-1990s, and of the devastating testimonies of the survivors and the bereaved of the four rail disasters that followed – Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar.

Director Alexander Lass gets things off to a brisk start with his nine-strong cast hurrying around the stage like commuters on a busy concourse in the rush hour.

Then we meet the individuals – the civil servant, the banker, the rail executive, the rail engineer, the union leader, the politician, the crash survivors and grieving parents – whose interwoven personal stories make up this play.

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The cast of The Permanent Way (photo: Nobby Clark)

Some lines you will never unhear. Like the relative of a crash victim being told “when you are thrown from the window, you always lose your shoes”. Or the terrifying account of a train derailment at 100mph.

Amongst the many harrowing accounts there are some lighter moments, such the series of encounters with a brusque John Prescott (a spot on performance by Paul Dodds). It’s fair to say the politicians and the men in suits don’t come out of this well.

One of Hare’s interviewees suggests that a play about railways is “an incredibly boring subject”. It is anything but. He asks searching questions about corporate responsibility and the notion of “profit over people”. There are no comfortable answers. Don’t be surprised to find yourself walking out of the dark tunnels under Waterloo in shock and anger.

(The press performance on 19 September took place on the 22nd anniversary of the Southall rail crash and was dedicated to those who lost their lives, and those who were injured.)

The Permanent Way is at The Vaults, Waterloo, until 17 November

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Not Running – National Theatre (Lyttelton)

And so to another drama at the National Theatre about politics and rocky relationships (see previous review), except this one is firmly set in contemporary Britain.

David Hare’s I’m Not Running focuses on Pauline Gibson (Sian Brooke), a doctor whose campaign to save a hospital leads to a career in politics and her decision on whether or not to run for the leadership of the Labour Party.

The play begins with an amusing exchange between Gibson’s campaign manager Sandy (played by the always excellent Joshua McGuire) and a pack of political hacks at a press conference. No, he won’t be answering any questions, he says, before proceeding to do just the opposite.

The play moves backwards and forwards over some 20 years to examine Gibson’s life, her motivations and her complicated relationship with university ex Jack Gould (Alex Hassell), a Labour Party stalwart.

Sensibly, Hare places all of these political shenanigans in an alternate reality. There’s no mention of Brexit or Corbyn (though perhaps it’s no coincidence that the hospital that Gibson saves is Corby).

But for all its clever one liners, and an impressive revolving set with giant talking head projections, I’m Not Running is hard to connect with over its two hours and 40 minutes. There’s a genuinely affecting scene between a young version of Gibson and her alcoholic mother, but by the time the play reached its predictable final line I was glad to be running for the last train.