People Are Happy On Trains
War/War/War Theatre Company
Twenty Twenty Two, Manchester
Plays about grief are, it seems, like buses and arrive in pairs—the GM Fringe has just hosted In the Bones and now Anna Doyle tackles the same theme in a very different manner with People Are Happy On Trains.
Grief is a universal emotion but a subjective experience and has a particularly personal impact. No-one can anticipate how they will behave in the same circumstances. With People Are Happy On Trains, War/War/War Theatre Company strives to help the audience empathise with this most personal event. The staging of the play by director Aoife Delany Reade reflects this very personal aspect. A Woman stands centre stage while the other three members of the cast (the company comprises Ellen McBride, Emily White, Hanahazukashi Mai and Una Valaine) anonymously reflect aspects of her personality and her memories. She is frail and withdrawn but trying to maintain a connection to 'normal' everyday life. it is a struggle—her voice trails off unconvincingly as she attempts a joke about train timetables. The Woman's self-esteem is so shattered that, although we learn she is mourning the loss of her younger brother, Vincent, the name of the character she plays is never specified.
The staging is stark—the cast arranged on a rows of chairs, occasionally jerking to the rhythm of the train. This minimalist, abstract approach drags us into the mind of the Woman. She is travelling on the train to Edinburgh. She is so overwhelmed by a sense of unfairness, that someone as gifted as Vincent could pass on while she survives, her recollection of her childhood and the advice and judgement she received and endured after his death constantly intrude.
The cast represent different responses to those suffering from grief. Neutral professional guidance on how to move on or angry parental condemnation of what could be perceived, objectively, as morbid self-absorption.
The use of the train as a metaphor is inspired. On public transport, we are forced into unwanted intimacy with strangers. Encountering people coping with extreme grief is just as awkward. In a rare moment of humour, the cast capture the embarrassment of people defensively trying to guard their personal space on trains. The awareness that life goes on after a bereavement constantly intrudes on the Woman's grief as passengers casually chat or order refreshments. The Woman goes so far as to cadge a fag which may be her first step to recovery.
People Are Happy On Trains features a raw and powerful central performance but would not work half as well without the fluid and selfless support from the other members of the cast. It is an intense study of the highly personal nature of grief from a company new to Manchester but very welcome.
Reviewer: David Cunningham