First performed in 2003, Alexander Lass's revival of The Permanent Way represents the first time the play has been produced in London for fifteen years. David Hare's exploration of British railway privatisation is presented through a series of verbatim accounts from interviews conducted by the playwright and Out of Joint theatre company. Over the course of the play, testimonies are heard from transport police, rail executives and, most stirring of all, the survivors and bereaved family members from Britain's four major rail disasters; Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar.
It is a pleasant surprise that this production is able to make something watchable out of an historical event that is on the surface rather dull. Surely there can never have been such a disparity between how boring an event's Wikipedia page is and how engaging the dramatised story is. There were however a few alarm bells at the start of the play; as the entire ensemble flood the stage and jostle for vocal supremacy, the sheer quantity of phrases such as compound interest rates has one worried that just keeping up with the story could be a mentally taxing exercise.
Rather than focusing on economic jargon, the play develops as Hare skilfully depicts the tragic human side in the debate over railway privatisation. As an exploration of "corporate crime", the production is at its most moving when it illuminates the chasm between seemingly omnipotent corporations and the everyday normal person. In her role as a bereaved mother, Jacqui Dubois delivers the performance of the evening; the obvious vulnerability and heartbreak after losing her son is tempered by the steeliness and dignity she displays in her dealings with transport authorities and John Prescott. Dubois is able to portray both sides of her character to equal effect.
Much will be made of how apt it is that a play about trains is being performed underneath Waterloo station but this venue selection is more than a gimmick. Hearing the rumble of locomotives overhead undeniably adds a kind of organic immediacy to the production that would be impossible to achieve through sound design alone. Certain words and lines simply seem that much more vital and potent for having to fight to be heard with the tons of metal screeching over London's surface on a Thursday evening. Rick Fisher and Roly Witherow (lighting and sound design respectively) make good use of what The Vaults provide. Generally, minimal interference is required, aside from when the public inquiry scene reaches its climax and a second bereaved mother's howls are drowned out by screeching whistles. As the stage and audience are plunged into darkness, the mood is so intense one half expects a train to come smashing through the brick walls of the theatre.
Perhaps leaning more towards educational than entertaining, this remains an engrossing play and an interesting study of how huge companies can prioritise profit at the expense of people. For those unfamiliar with The Vaults as a venue, this might be the perfect production to break that duck – The Permanent Way seems written for this stage.