Last Train to Nibroc

Arlene Hutton
Orange Tree, Richmond upon Thames

Production photo

When Raleigh meets May on a long-distance train from LA to Chicago they discover they’re from adjacent towns in the Kentucky sticks.

Sure, there’s a mutual attraction between them, but the relationship stays cool because she has prissy notions of becoming a missionary, working in a leper colony, without quite understanding what it might involve.

Raleigh, just invalided out of the US Army Air Force with epilepsy, plans to journey on to New York and become a writer — or maybe settle down as a Kentucky farmer. But she, jilted by her flyer fiance, is returning to her parents’ home in Corbin feeling shamed and embarrassed, trying to pass off her library copy of Magnificent Obsession as a spiritual work.

While that first meeting takes place a few days after Christmas 1940, this gentle play by Arlene Hutton then meanders across a rural re-encounter in August 1942 at the Nibroc festival (Corbin spelt backwards), before reaching a romantic resolution nine months later when the young couple finally stand together watching a symbolic blaze happening maybe a half-mile away but giving their cheeks a warm glow.

Based partly on detailed moments in her parents’ courtship, there are rare moments of dramatic fireworks. One is May’s confession that her preacher boyfriend has his acquisitive hands in the offertory box, and another when she mistakes Raleigh’s epilepsy for ‘leprosy’.

But the piece has the nostalgic charm of one of those Norman Rockwell cover paintings for The Saturday Evening Post, a wholesome national magazine in which Raleigh gets his first work published.

Hutton’s play was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991 and since then has been revived all over the world, but its homespun humour and fingertip relationship — lightly touching the surface of an evolving love affair — relies heavily on the quality of the two performances.

I am happy to report that this Orange Tree revival is beautifully cast with Chris Starkie as the expansive Raleigh and Heather Saunders as the demure May. Their sense of period playing and grasp of the intonation of these characters is both attractive and awesome, even to the slight falling away at the end of sentences. No wonder they got a double curtain call at the official first night, blinking with delight at the crowded house as they renewed their bows.

The staging by Katie Henry concludes the theatre’s Female Playwrights season. This is also her solo Showcase production, an annual Orange Tree spring event when trainee directors make their final bow before departing to take up work in the world of theatre.

She had to accept the stage layout for the previous production of De Monfort, an awkward central dais with steps up at the corners, but has made virtue of a necessity with the addition of a simple bench that stands in for the train compartment, moved around four times during the course of the journey to give the audience on four sides a face-on view of the couple.

Played without an interval she has contrived to make the action continuous by having the actors change costume onstage, which might not have worked but for the fact that these young performers carry it off with such sweet aplomb.

Indeed the skilful combination of text, lived-in performances and warm understanding of the play’s demands have supplied Miss Henry with a small-scale but satisfying triumph to add to her director’s curriculum vitae.

Reviewer: John Thaxter

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