Plays don’t come much more topical than this.

En route home after seeing The Permanent Way at the National, I read the Evening Standard article, “Firms with links to rail disasters win £450m worth of safety work”, about the lucrative new contracts awarded to Jarvis and Balfour Beatty, the rail maintenance companies responsible for the tracks at crash sites Potters Bar and Hatfield, respectively - a sadly ironic development which author David Hare had already incorporated into that evening’s press night performance.

Newspapers also feature heavily in director Max Stafford-Clark’s fast-paced opening sequence, in which the excellent nine-strong ensemble play rail passengers being jostled about as they vent their frustrations and spout wide-ranging views that could have been lifted verbatim from the range of tabloids and broadsheets they brandish.

For anyone who’s experienced transport chaos, delays, strikes and fare inflation (which must be just about everyone), this collective diatribe provides a kind of catharsis, if an occasionally ill-informed one. But wait; any ignorance, or indifference, on the subject of railways, is soon to be dispelled.

Through the series of investigative monologues with ministers, civil servants, merchant bankers, rail executives, solicitors, survivors, bereaved and others that follows, our understanding of the betrayal of the “permanent way” (referring to the UK’s early leadership in rail technology, with the establishment of the 4’8” track gauge that became the world standard) is infinitely deepened.

“Why aren’t people angry?” one of Hare’s witnesses asks. By the end of this superbly researched and rivetingly performed account, you can’t help but be very angry indeed.

- Terri Paddock

NOTE: The following review dates from November 2003 and this production’s first tour stop at York’s Theatre Royal.

A world premiere of a David Hare play in York - what on earth is happening? Well, clearly co-producers Out of Joint and the National Theatre have realised just how much affection the railway garners in the city; one only has to take a walk around the National Railway Museum to confirm this.

At the very heart of The Permanent Way is the theme of caring - or, rather, not caring - about railways. Tired commuters and sad trainspotters alike will be able to tell you about the past and present state of our privatised railways and yet no one has quite managed to rake through the leaves and come up with the facts until now.

Hare's observations are based on concrete evidence. This series of monologues about the political, social, intelligent and human voices behind the privatisation process is presented by nine actors who play 26 characters between them - including victims of the Southall, Paddington and Hatfield crashes, as well as John Prescott, and an MD of Railtrack. Hare gathered these witness accounts and then he and the company workshopped the material. The results slaughter what is left of a maligned national institution.

The fantastic monologue from "a British Transport Policeman" (Nigel Cooke) who witnessed not one but two crashes is one of the most memorable, showing that he was one of the few human voices in authority to deal competently with such an event.

The actors work against a backdrop video production that at first serves as an electronic timetable, and then suddenly springs into life and shows a train hurtling towards a crash and inevitable fatalities. William Dudley has designed a piece of imagery that immediately brings the message home.

The performers handle the stockpile of words well, while Max Stafford-Clark, collaborating with Hare for the first time since 1975, keeps the show on track by regularly shunting everyone around at a varying pace.

Hare has written an interesting piece of political theatre and has presented the facts to an audience to dissect as they will. The only question remaining is, 'Do we care enough about the railways to listen to what Hare has to say?'

- Morgan Sproxton