The Permanent Way

Thursday, 15 January, 2004

The British love their railway. Books and magazines about trains proliferate in a never ending tide, amateur enthusiasts run steam engines on recreational branch lines, and unfortunate boys are taken by their fathers to stand on station platforms to watch the trains pull in. Yes, the British love their railway, even Maggie Thatcher was reluctant to privatise British Rail, she said of such plans “They will be this government’s Waterloo”.

David Hare’s play ‘The Permanent way’, tells of the devastating impact train privatisation has had on the British Railway. For many of us that impact has been the mere inconvenience of delayed train journeys and overcrowded carriages, sadly for others the impact has been far more devastating. There have been fifty deaths and hundreds of injuries in train accidents between 1996 and 2002. Who is responsible? What is it like for the survivors? What is being done? These are the questions that run throughout the play; the answers provided leave you feeling sad, angry and helpless.

David Hare along with director Max Stafford-Clark, and the cast of the play have interviewed survivors and families of those who have died, along with shareholders, managers, chairpersons, civil servants and police investigators. Hare has taken parts of these interviews and weaved them into a text that tells the drama of rail privatisation. What emerges is a terrible story of buck-passing, incompetence and at times arrant insensitivity to other people’s suffering.

The nine-member cast speak directly to the audience in a series of monologues, in what appears to be the exact words of the people they interviewed, they even address the audience as ‘David’, as if we were actually there witnessing the interview happening. At first I found this annoying, but as the characters slowly open up to expose their pain, anger and in some cases shame, it created a sense of rapport, and I found myself obliged to empathise with these people who were speaking directly to me.

An image of a railway departure board announces the train that is to be de-railed, and the cast begin to tell the story of train privatisation. We learn how managers replace engineers in order of priorities; competitiveness replaces public service, and how greed for profit overrides safety concerns. With each derailment the emphasis concentrates further on the victims. I was appalled by the story of one mother who in order to receive compensation for the death of her son had to answer questions about how much her son’s life was valued. One question asked, “How much did he spend on Xmas presents?” left me feeling angry and bitter at the very idea of asking such a crass question. I even felt some sympathy for the managing director of Railtrack, who was reviled by nearly all concerned. He seemed to be one of the few people willing to admit responsibility or experience any remorse.

What comes out clear in Hare’s terrific drama documentary is that responsibility is a dirty word, and blame always lies elsewhere. By the time we get to the final train disaster at Potters Bar, we are no longer surprised to learn that there was no public inquiry and no one is responsible.

I have never understood our fascination with railways, until I saw this play. Sadly, it is not one of engineering accomplishments and of public service, but a record of disgrace that we as a nation should be ashamed of.

Alan Bird

What other critics had to say.....
RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Searing piece of documentary theatre." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Max Stafford Clark delivers a great production and you leave the theatre aroused and angry." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Superbly edited, directed and acted." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "This production is worth a visit." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Powerfully moving."

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Guardian
Daily Telegraph
The Times
Financial Times

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