The Permanent Way, Theatre Royal, York

Hare on track with black farce about the railways
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In a news item about declining bus services last week, Baroness Thatcher was quoted as having said that anyone over 30 who takes a bus must be a failure. She felt contempt for the railways, too, honouring a train with her presence only once during her premiership.

But over the railways, her compulsion for privatising checked itself. John Major, as if wishing to prove continuity with her administration, and comparably large cojones, rushed through legislation that split the rail network into 113 parts and left public safety shivering on the track as one profit-seeking company was put in charge of the line and another profit-seeking company was given charge of the trains. Lady Thatcher had once said: "Railway privatisation will be this government's Waterloo." Instead, with New Labour failing to reverse a patently lunatic scheme, innocent passengers met their Southall, their Ladbroke Grove, their Hatfield and their Potters Bar.

The political dramatist David Hare has joined forces with Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint Company and the National Theatre to create a documentary drama about this tragic fiasco. It is a compelling, fast-moving and astringently witty collage of first-hand testimonies and conflicting points of view, derived from extensive interviews with the people involved (everyone from investment bankers at one end to the survivors' support groups and the bereaved at the other).

The picture that emerges with great force from these vivid, eloquently juxtaposed vignettes is of a debased culture that sets less store by the expertise that comes from intimate knowledge of a subject than by vacuous so-called management skills.

An experienced rail engineer tells us the problems stemmed from, "Railtrack deciding it wasn't an engineering company, it was an access-selling company". Track-maintenance workers give us a jolting perspective on a crazy commercial world where there is so much sub-contracting and out-sourcing, "you don't actually know who you work for". How can you expect loyalty?

With a fine, versatile cast of nine taking on a multiplicity of guises, the show progresses roughly according to the terrible, widening pattern of repetition that marked the succession of accidents-waiting-to-happen that happened: "Rail accident. Inquiry. Recommendation. No action. Rail Accident. Inquiry. Recommendation. No action."

You come to dread the station noticeboard at the back of the set clattering into action like a collapsing line of dominoes to announce the next doomed train. The compression of the material enhances a sense of black farce, with John Prescott bouncing back to declare to the cameras, yet again: "This must never happen again."

The testimonies have been placed and edited by Hare with a dramatist's surgical sensitivity and a journalist's eye for good copy. Max Stafford-Clark's incisive production manages to make its devastating case without piety or smug hindsight.

The play continually complicates and enlarges your understanding.

At Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 18 to 22 November, then touring. At the National Theatre, 8 January till 1 May, 2004