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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Permanent Way
Cottesloe Theatre, Winter 2003-2004; Lyttelton Spring 2004

A bit of history: the last Tory government in Britain, as part of its policy of returning publically-owned services (gas, phone, etc.) to the private sector, privatised the railroads in a particularly complex way.

One company, Railtrack, owned the stations and tracks, while a few dozen other companies ran the trains on assigned routes.

(It actually got more complicated than that: the operating companies didn't own the trains, but rented them from other companies, while Railtrack contracted out such things as track maintenance and repair to construction firms who subcontracted the actual work.)

It soon became apparent that this didn't work, most dramatically and tragically when a series of crashes could all be traced - logically if not legally - to the complex structure that essentially left nobody in charge and nobody ultimately responsible.

And that is the subject of David Hare's latest play, developed out of interviews with politicians, railroad executives, crash investigators, survivors and bereaved families; and produced by the National Theatre and the touring company Out of Joint.

It's not really a play, actually. What we get are nine actors playing a few dozen real or composite characters, telling their stories to an invisible 'David.'

It's essentially a TV documentary full of talking heads, and Hare's role is that of the videotape editor, cutting the interviews down to the most effective sound bites and pasting them together in the most effective order.

Still, it has its powerful moments. You can't help but be moved by the tales of the crash survivors and mourners.

And there are even some striking insights, like the discovery that the two groups ultimately have little in common - the families need the closure of getting someone to take the blame, while the survivors need eventually to get on with their lives.

And you can't help being angered by the accounts of safety regulations not followed because they interfered with profits, or by the words of rail executives seeming to apologise while distancing themselves from responsibility.

But anyone who has read the papers or watched the news for the past few years knows all this already. Hare doesn't really have much new to tell us, and he doesn't come to many conclusions except that Things Are A Mess and Something Should Be Done.

And so there is an element of preaching to the choir about the play because, after all, everyone knows that Things Are A Mess and Something Should Be Done.

Indeed, by opening the play with a comic sequence of the cast rattling off the sorts of complaints about the railroads that everyone in the audience has made at one time or another, Hare effectively begins by reminding us that we already agree with what he's going to tell us.

And so The Permanent Way, for all its anger, is ultimately a complacent and self-congratulatory work. We all know that Something Should Be Done, it says to the audience, so why don't They do something about it?

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Permanent Way - National Theatre 2003

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