A Heartbreaking Chronicles of British Railway

Written by Vaida Wippermann

This May, Dubai Drama Group (DDG) is returning to stage with the contemporary topic and the first verbatim theatre production, where the script is constructed from the testimonies of witnesses  of the real event – the denationalization of British Railways. It is also the first play to be performed on a traverse or “catwalk” stage, with audience members witnessing the action from all angles. The engaging play intends to transcend from the UK-related topic to the universal themes of  human nature, greed, power, grief and loss. 

The denationalization of public property is each time a highly controversial topic. In general, governments are trying to manage public assets best of their ability. However, if they feel that the private sector can fill design, construction, operation, or maintenance responsibility better – they tend to denationalize it. History shows that decisions of such scale rarely come with absolute success and benefits are hotly debatable.

The denationalization of British Railways which started in 1994 and since then carries many debates and heart-wrenching memories of several major rail crashes:

  • Southall rail crash (1997) causing seven deaths and 139 injuries;
  • Ladbroke Grove rail crash (1999) with 31 people killed and 417 injured;
  • Hatfield rail crash (2000) killing four people and injuring more than 70; and
  • Potters Bar rail crash (2002) killing seven and injuring 76.

Sir David Hare – an English playwright, screenwriter, and theatre and film director – undertook this “a not promising topic” of rail regulation and brought it to the theatre stage. The article published by “The Beauty of Transport” has noted that Mr. Hare is anonymizing his characters, perhaps suggesting that everyone has equally contributed to the situation – either the railway was run by incompetent people, or they were qualified enough but restricted by maladjusted nature of the privatized industry. As per journalist Jonn Elledge, “the core play’s argument: The 1996 rail privatization was, in effect, an act of theft from the British people, which should have made us furious then and should make us all furious still”.  The play collates the insightful and heart-wrenching accounts of those most intimately involved. From the surviving passengers to bereaved relatives, first responders, and government ministers, their voices bear witness to a story of greed, incompetence, and mismanagement on a national scale. As John Elledge described, “the script is literally pieced together from interviews with passengers, politicians, maintenance crews and rail experts – means it’s as much an act of journalism as one of theatre.” 

Moment from the performance. Photo courtesy of Dubai Drama Group.

The director of the production Catherine Broad shared with us that wanted to have this play on the Dubai stage for the last two years. She explained that one of the biggest challenges she has faced was to gather actors passionate about telling stories and experiences of these real people. And the challenge didn’t end there: “the difficult part for me was trying to divide the roles between each of the actors. There are 12 actors and 49 roles. They all could have played so many different roles so I spent a lot of time planning different characters per actor to see what would work.”

With very little bridging material, the play is equally difficult for the actors. One of the actors in the play, Jonathan Duff, shared his challenge was ”learning the lines, which are all verbatim. Paradoxically it’s harder to learn ‘natural’ language than words that are ‘contrived’ by the playwright because of the small repetitions and unfiltered thoughts. I think the playwright David Hare felt people’s real language and real events were sufficiently dramatic on their own. He has skillfully interwoven these discourses with all the ‘characters’ to create tension and reveal the truth”. While Gwen Watson, the other actor in the play, shared that her most challenging aspect was “getting inside the mind of real characters who have been through such traumatic events. It’s a delicate balance, performing for dramatic effect whilst remaining respectful of the losses and experiences of the people involved”.

“I am delighted that Dubai Drama Group marks its post-pandemic return to the staging of live theatre with this shocking, visceral and engaging play,” says Jonathan Siklos, Chairman of Dubai Drama Group. “This remarkable production, marshalled with exquisite precision by director Catherine Broad, brings together the finest cast I’ve seen on a Dubai stage, including actors who have crept the local boards for many years, and newcomers who have performed all over the world. Dubai Drama Group has been producing theatre since 1984 and is excited to showcase their 86th production The Permanent Way this weekend. 

*A photo of the whole cast. Featured photo courtesy of Dubai Drama Group.

Information about the performance

What: The Permanent Way by David Hare (2003)

When:

  • Thursday 20th May, 7.30 pm
  • Friday 21st May, 7.30 pm
  • Saturday 22nd May, 3 pm
  • Saturday 22nd May, 7.30 pm

Where: Warehouse Four, Al Quoz, Dubai.

Tickets: TicketsLover


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