Customs House, South Shields
Off Track is the second of the new plays in the Customs House February Drama Festival, one of three winners of a competition held by the venue to find new writers of comedies, who have never had a play performed before. The first, last week, was Jump You Bastard! by Paul Buie. This week 25-year old schoolteacher Kevin Gardner is the writer, the youngest - by about twenty years - of the three writers.
Five would-be rail travellers are stuck in the sandwich bar of a small railway station, waiting for a train to Manchester which is delayed by heavy rain for an hour and a half. With them is the ticket seller who doubles as the sandwich bar server. In the first half they get to know each other and decide to take over the sandwich bar and set up the Brief Encounter Tea Room. In the second half we see what happens next.
The focus moves from character to character, giving each their turn in the spotlight and we watch the relationships between them build and develop. Apart from a few "jokes", some of which are rather obviously set up, the comedy arises from the characters and their relationships.
There are the makings of a good play here. The characters are well-differentiated, if a little shallow, some even stereotypical - tetchy businessman, geeky (female) trainspotter, middle-aged woman trapped in boring lifestyle - and one (the 92-year old mother-in-law from hell) who seems to be introduced in the second half mainly for laughs (which she got a-plenty, it has to be said). The idea is an interesting one and the "closed room" situation of the first half provides plenty of opportunity for good interaction between the characters.
The pace, however, has little variation and there is no build up to (nor coming down from) significant moments. Nor are the relationships between the characters fully explored: it's a bit of a cop-out for significant changes in relationships to develop over the interval!
However, it is Gardner's first play and he has avoided many of the pitfalls which lie in wait for the beginning playwright.
As far as the performances are concerned, to be honest there is not a lot more the actors could have done with the characters as presented to them. There is no point in getting beneath the skin of a character if there's nothing there. But there was one moment where I winced! Neil (Peter Harrison) tries to extract a sandwich from a broken vending machine, lying on the floor and wriggling his arm through the works. The arm gets stuck and Pamela (the trainspotter, played by Ellie Fletcher) tries to help. They writhe around and end up looking as though they are having sex - a cheap laugh and perfectly out of tune with the rest of the play.
A final word about the set. It looked to have been thrown together in five minutes: whilst it didn't actually wobble, the tape concealing joins in the flats was even more obvious than the joins would have been and there was an unfinished quality about some of the painting. It was supposed to have been redecorated for the second half but redecoration ought to mean more than a few pictures on the walls and tablecloths on the tables. It did no one any favours.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan