The Permanent Way

David Hare
RNT Cottesloe
(2004)

The team of Sir David Hare and director, Out of Joint's Max Stafford-Clark, is perfect for this concept. In the past, they have perfected the use of interviewing techniques in creating the Absence of War trilogy and A State Affair respectively.

Those plays indicted a series of comfortable institutions with stunning effect. It is high time that somebody analysed the "catalogue of shame" that is the British rail system.

One civil servant describes this as "an incredibly boring subject". By the end of an engrossing 110 minutes though, The Permanent Way will have angered and moved everyone lucky enough to have obtained a ticket.

William Dudley has created a set consisting of an empty space flanked by overhead power lines with a large projection screen behind. The screen twice takes centre stage. It counts off the tragedies on a departure board and then, dramatically, it recreates the Potters Bar derailment using computer graphics.

After a series of general whinges about the rail service (or lack of it), the play soon begins its condemnation of those responsible for the four recent rail disasters and, as one disillusioned policeman played by Nigel Cooke suggests, a conspiracy to cover-up the facts.

The accused stretch from the Government, largely represented by Lloyd Hutchinson as John Prescott (he also plays Richard Branson sans beard), through the poor old head of Railtrack (Ian Redford actually making him sympathetic), down to the untrained drivers and track repair crews. In almost every case, saving money is plainly regarded as more important than saving lives.

The real "stars" are the victims and, in particular, the women. Bella Merlin and Flaminia Cinque are great as two mothers who lost sons and demand explanations, while Kika Markham plays Nina (author Nina Bawden) who lost her husband and was herself in the same carriage at Potters Bar.

One interesting phenomenon is the division between the survivors and the families of the dead. The former want events behind them and seem unnecessarily placatory. The families (or Safety Fascists) need the catharsis of trials and blame and will battle for years to get it.

As one would expect from this playwright and theatre company, this is a ruthless analysis of what has gone wrong with a strong line in political condemnation. We are already seeing suggestions of vertical integration as the way forward for the railways and if it prevents more of these tragedies, it cannot arrive too soon.

The Permanent Way is constantly enthralling, well written, acted and directed. The stage needs to engender political debate and Sir David Hare is at the forefront of exponents of this art.

Peter Lathan reviewed the touring version of this production.

Philip Fisher