Way back when, before 1880 to be precise, the time of day wasn’t
standardised across Britain, let alone the world. Clocks had been accurate
enough since 1792, and this led to each locality having its own local time -
the time in Wales for example, was 11 minutes later than in London! The
coming of the railways accelerated the need for some synchronisation.
This was all news to me, and fascinating news at that. For Alan Plater, it was fascinating enough to inspire his writing a pair of radio plays. The reaction to those was so enthusiastic that he decided to adapt those radio plays for the stage.
Appropriately, Only a Matter of Time is set in two different times: the 19th century and the present day. In a field in Wales, progress comes up against tradition,
embodied by a Welsh peasant farmer and the man from London doing a recce for
the railway company. Meredith (Brendan O'Hea) and Fanshawe (Simon Walter)
argue the toss as Meredith tosses hay till sundown (he has no watch), when
he's agreed to show Meredith the way to town.
In the second half, their descendants meet, 19th-century debates are
resolved and all is revealed about the first half cliffhangers (literally - but
to say more would reveal all!).
There's no doubt that this is impressive writing. Plater has the knack of
bringing to life potentially dry arguments by putting them into the mouths
of two engaging protagonists. And because we all love stories, he's spun
enough of a plot to keep us wanting to know what happens next.
But the first half betrays its origins as a radio play. Words certainly
speak louder than actions in the 19th century, where there's little
for the characters to do as they pass the time of day but share food - or
toss that hay! Fortunately, the second half is sharper and funnier, gliding effortlessly from one location to another, with just the
flourish of a beer or tea mug. John Doyle's pacey direction ensures time
doesn't drag, while Dawn Allsop's design and Wayne Dodswell's lighting
combine to give us a glimpse of an idyllic corner of rural Wales.
In the end, Only a Matter of Time is a satisfying enough evening and a chance to appreciate two excellent performers. As an added bonus, you can't fail to learn something new and fascinating too!