‘The Great Train Race’ (Interchange, Galashiels: 29 Nov. ’15)

Ellie Zeegen and Simon Donaldson Photo: Firebrand Theatre

Ellie Zeegen and Simon Donaldson
Photo: Firebrand Theatre

“You might want to take sides and cheer your engine along”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Where better to stage this play of trains than in a bus and railway station? And so to the impressive Galashiels Interchange, which may have a Borders postcode, but whose track once more runs straight to Edinburgh and onto the ED49 platform. The permanent way is back – ‘Hurrah!’ – and the winding A7 is properly historic.

Redoubled ‘Hurrahs!’ too for the return of Robert Dawson Scott’s 2013 flag waving, whistle tooting, tale of men and locomotives (and a gender bending signal box). It is the summer of 1895 and two railroad companies – the North British and the Caledonian – are competing to run the fastest overnight service between London and Aberdeen. They take different routes – up the east and west coasts respectively – but the two eventually converge at Kinnaber Junction, 38 miles from the finish, which is where the signal box comes in – big time. And, just to add to the headlong fun, there are no speedometers in the cabs.

This is main-line ‘Play, Pie and a Pint’: three actors and 45-50 minutes long, which happily enough is almost the journey time between Gala’ and Waverley on the Borders Railway. Could The Great Train Race be performed on a moving train? Maybe director Richard Baron entertained the idea and brought it to the (Fat) Controllers of ScotRail. Well, we do get a Sir Topham Hatt character of sorts, and the piece is staged in the rectangular ‘round’. Not exactly in a carriage but the action goes from side to side, round n’ round, with the passengers occasionally buffeted by the wind from a passing train. Never mind, you might be on a ‘Grouse Express’ and the shooting parties have lobster in their hampers. You might want to take sides and cheer your engine along or – more likely – just sit forward and enjoy a show performed at speed and with great, engaging, spirit.

It is easy to distinguish the actors. When they are not sporting beards or holding balloons or dumping ‘hot’ coals in your lap, livery is all. Ali Watt is decent Norrie, railway clerk of the North British. He has the uniform, English accent, and manners of a man who believes in the rulebook and in fair competition. Dumping timetables and ‘dropping’ stations is simply not on. On the other footplate, in overalls, is Cammie (Simon Donaldson, educ. Earlston High School), a fitter in the engine sheds whose speech runs more along the lines of “Yer dancer”, which to describe a 2-4-0 ‘Hardwicke’ locomotive is going some. In-between the two and indicatively Doric, stands Kinnaber (Ellie Zeegen), whose friendly and eager narrative is the coupling rod.

It is a chuffing good story, merrily told, and with such invention and detail that the Borders Railway might wish that they were passenger numbers. Oh, sorry, there are tales of overcrowding already; which is scarcely Firebrand Theatre’s fault.



Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 29 November)

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