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The Next Train to Depart

John Challis
Queen's Hall Arts
Live Theatre, Newcastle

Alex Donaldson & Alex Tahnee Credit: Photo - McGrillis
Alex Donaldson Credit: Photo - McGrillis
Alex Tahnee Credit: Photo - McGrillis

David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter is still much loved in the UK, but a revisit reveals it to be pretty dated; all that stiff upper lip, sexual restraint and terribly terribly good manners.

So publicising John Challis’s one-act two-hander The Next Train to Depart, directed by Melanie Rashbrooke, as ‘Brief Encounter for the 21st century’ is a risky business.

Our protagonists here are of a different time, a different culture and a good decade younger than Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

This is the first of three Bite Size plays produced by Queens Hall Arts Centre, Hexham for performance in Live Theatre’s upstairs studio in Newcastle and on opening night every seat was taken. The play has a fairly bare set and a black backdrop. There’s no tiered seating in this space, so for we back-row dwellers the studio’s sight lines aren’t excellent.

Adam Donaldson plays Dante, a modern-day young poet who hangs round the station each day to observe the human condition and to write his poetry. Why his poetry should be so site-specific is never explained, but he gets an Arts Council grant which in itself makes him a rare and endangered species.

Dante is middle-class (few working class lads bear such a name) while Alex Tahnee’s Kayleigh is working class and employed in a call centre, pausing for the quick caffeine fix on her way home. This affords the play to score a few telling cultural points. Both of them are in relationships which we learn, surprise, surprise, leave something to be desired. And as their ‘chance’ station meetings continue, matters begin to take their course.

Not that anything happens. Well, nothing like that anyway. Well, not during the play—maybe later. In this sense they’re both, like their predecessors, terribly good mannered though each in their way is seeking some kind of escape.

At the start, Dante is the free spirit urging spontaneity and Kayleigh is the cautious wage slave. By the end, it’s Kayleigh who suggests they jump on the train to Manchester together and Dante who gets cold feet. Thus, the journey of the play.

All this is enjoyable enough without ever quite exploding into life. There is little real sense, despite the strong performances, of these two sailing into dangerous or obsessive waters, partly because their existing partners remain mainly an abstract, partly because the chemistry (to mix a metaphor) is luke warm.

Each short scene is punctuated either by the station’s departure announcements or Dante stepping up to read one of his ‘station poems’.

These poems are impressive, the everyday activities of a busy station transformed into something meaningful via the power of verse. I suspect they may have been the starting point of the play. And even if the verse has little to do with the narrative development of the two characters, it offers the strongest writing and leaves an echo the dialogue can’t quite match.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer