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