First Night: Train spotters take an alternative journey: The Joy of Return

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The Independent Online
AFTER experimental theatre, street theatre and underground theatre, here comes private conservation steam railway theatre.

The month-long Barclays New Stages festival of alternative theatre has opened. And as I shivered in the drizzle at 10pm on a railway platform in the wilds of East Sussex watching the cast across the track doing a Busby Berkeley routine overseen by a ticket inspector dressed as Mussolini, I reckoned this was about as alternative as you could get.

Generally, when I hear the word multimedia I reach for my excuse; but this 'performance journey' by the company Limn Gaza along the Bluebell Line had its moments.

From the engine sheds at Sheffield Park station, we were led through a dreamlike curtain of steam and on to a train for a journey where the ticket inspectors and some of the fellow passengers were actors - including a couple made up to resemble the two principals in the film Brief Encounter. Then on to another station where we lined up on the platform to watch dance, film, trapeze, and a mini play, all supposedly evoking the lost age of steam. The excellent and original idea of a performance journey on a steam train might have been better served by a ghost story or horror or crime narrative rather than some of the tired, embarrass-the-travellers humour that we had.

But then maybe the cast were thrown by a factor they had not allowed for. Stage anything on a steam train, be it acting, dance or multimedia, and sure as funnels is funnels you will get an audience not of arts devotees but of steam enthusiasts. Here, totally unplanned, was a play within a play.

While actors acted, dancers danced and jugglers juggled, the conversation around me remained resolutely that of a train spotters' convention: 'I got a marvellous meal on the Golden Arrow last year . . . Of course, that uniform would never have been worn on the Southern Railway.'

And then there were the St John Ambulancemen. Have a 'theatre audience' on a train and presumably they have to be there; but they're rotten sports at multimedia. Just as we cross a bridge where the production has placed an illuminated installation to extend a fantasy sequence, one says to the other 'that's the spot where we had that accident last Thursday'.

And when a ticket-inspector actor pushes off an ambulanceman's hat, the latter chases him the length of the carriage in a fury and gives him a dressing-down that is definitely not in the script.

The Royal Court Theatre in London puts on the Barclays New Stages, and its box office is organising the train and coach trips to the Bluebell Line.

As the audience arrived back at Victoria in the small hours, a little wet, a little chilly, they could reflect that they had been in the forefront of an artistic discovery: for true multimedia always include intense steam buffs and disgruntled ambulancemen.

(Photograph omitted)