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The Permanent Way

David Hare
Co-production between Out of Joint and the National Theatre
Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2003)

I didn't think we could do it anymore. I really did think that real political theatre was dead in Britain. When the musical means something built around the back catalogue of a pop group or singer, or a revival of something which is, preferably, around fifty years old, and when most touring drama is middle of the road, a kind of post-millennial equivalent of the West End of the thirties and forties, real political theatre - by which I mean theatre which sees politics in terms of people - seemed to have died with the advent of Thatcherism and everything which followed - including, regrettably, John McGrath's Hyperlynx - was a pale imitation of something which was once vibrant and compelling.

I was wrong. Last month Live Theatre and the RSC gave us Keepers of the Flame and now David Hare, with Out of Joint and the National, bring us The Permanent Way.

As I left Live, I heard one man muttering "agit-prop" to another. What absolute rubbish! The Permanent Way is as far from agit-prop as Hamlet is from melodrama. From the privatisation of the railways through to Potter's Bar, by way of Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield, we listen to the words of people involved: the politicians, the civil servants, the management and executives of the new companies, Richard Branson, engineers, union officials, the survivors, the bereaved, even Lord Cullen. They are spoken directly to the audience - rarely indeed does any character address another.

We begin, however, in humorous mode. The first scene - Hare calls it The Prologue - is comedy, somewhat wry and even black at times, but nonetheless comedy, the words of your typical commuter, beautifully choreographed by director Max Stafford-Clark. We move into the privatisation period and the comedy continues, taking on more of an edge, a little more bitterness and even anger, but when we reach the Southall crash there is a moment when the whole mood changes, a whole change in atmosphere, which happened in an instant. The shock that that incident had on the nation is reproduced chillingly onstage: there was a perceptible audience reaction which was entirely voiceless but very profound.

Up to that point I might well have agreed that there was a strong element of agit-prop, with the characters verging on (if not at times crossing over into) caricature, but from that moment on we are presented with real people with real emotions. There are no "baddies", in the sense of uncaringly evil capitalists willing to destroy lives for personal gain: even the head of Railtrack is allowed to express what is obviously deeply felt horror and regret at what happened.

What emerges is a complex picture (not the simplicity of agit-prop with its goodies and baddies) with no one demonised, although it has to be said that those who come out of it all with least credit are the politicians, both Conservative and Labour, represented mainly by John Prescott.

A hugely talented cast - Flaminia Cinque, Nigel Cooke, Matthew Dunster, Souad Faress, Sam Graham, Lloyd Hutchinson, Kika Markham, Bella Merlin and Ian Redford - give an object lesson in ensemble performance, assisted by a spare, very simple set by William Dudley, unobtrusive lighting by Johanna Town and a generally understated but at one point absolutely terrifying soundscape by Paul Arditti.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan