A stationmaster who has always followed orders and done his duty is diverted from his post for a split second and causes a disaster. An express thunders through the station and crashes into a goods train, killing eighteen people and injuring many others.
This central incident in Odon von Horvath’s remarkable 1937 play Judgment Day, newly translated by Christopher Hampton, leads to an enquiry, a case of perjury, a murder and the hounding of the stationmaster, Thomas Hudetz, by his own demons as much as the righteous townspeople.
The play was given a stunning Expressionist British premiere by Stephen Daldry at the Old Red Lion 20 years ago, but James Macdonald’s equally fine Almeida production is more measured, more evenly atmospheric and thoroughly hypnotic, as the action revolves slowly – rather as a Donmar revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross did some years back – on Miriam Buether’s wooden platform, a literally terminal interchange.
As Thomas (Joseph Millson) goes about his business switching the signals, checking his watch, the small town comes alive around him in the figures of Sarah Woodward’s gossip, Jack James’ travelling salesman, Laura Donnelly’s pertly attractive landlord’s daughter, Anna, and Thomas’ scowling, much older wife, played bitterly by Suzanne Burden.
The tragedy hinges on a moment of weakness and everything about the psychology of the cover-up, the vengefulness of the townsfolk and the anger of Anna’s butcher boyfriend (Daniel Hawksford) rings horribly true. There’s a particularly good scene between Thomas’ brother-in-law, the chemist (David Annen), and Woodward’s viperish gossip, that shows how what actually happened can be inflated in malicious second-hand reporting.
Macdonald marshals the cast – boosted by supernumeraries – in a relentless grip of tension, so that the final scenes of ghost-like apparitions and dead of night encounters follow without any jolts or jumps. The moving platform is backed off by a semi-circular wooden wall and the separate locations of the tavern, the viaduct, the chemist’s shop and domestic interiors are simply, and sculpturally, evoked.
It’s a wonderful restoration of a great play and fully vindicates Hampton’s persistent advocacy of Horvath over the years, both on stage and in print. The rush of the trains, and the sense of both physical and moral danger throughout, is brilliantly sustained in Neil Austin’s amazing lighting and Christopher Shutt’s expertly chilling soundtrack.