With twenty-four performances over two weeks, Manchester's January 2011 Re:Play festival provides another chance to see the best fringe theatre from the last year. In National Express we accompany three women on a bus journey from Brighton to Manchester after they answer an advert to participate in this 'social experiment'. The 'how' they got there quickly becomes unimportant as we begin to learn why, and what they're each searching for.
The set consists of three sets of reclining bus chairs which are rotated and shifted around the stage at will. The design is simple but effective, allowing the audience's focus to be manipulated depending on which way the chairs are facing. Although the characters do occasionally address each other directly, the majority of their dialogue is introspection or 'thinking out loud'.
Through each woman's eyes we catch glimpses of their fellow passengers. Their observations and theories about each other are often off the mark, but at other times are hugely insightful, allowing us to reflect on how often we judge and are judged by the strangers we meet. The most poignant of which is Steph's recollection of how the IRA bombing changed Manchester into a cold, distant place that 'moved on' without her, with implied parallels to her recent experience of losing a partner. There is also a hint of a link between Steph and Francesca, who's lives have both been touched by car accidents – perhaps the same one.
National Express feels like those conversations we all eavesdrop on the bus, tram, train; those private moments of strangers – ordinary people like us, but somehow fascinating.