Features Published 26 August 2014

The East Coast Trains Show

This bold new piece by East Coast trains mixes elements of farce with durational performance.

Natasha Tripney

There’s a Beckettian quality to East Coast’s new immersive experience. Having been told the Edinburgh to King’s Cross train will terminate at Peterborough, we are quickly reassured that there will be another train along in a few minutes to take us to our destination. There is a degree of dramatic tension, a ripple of unease, but at this point it is momentary and manageable. Yet it soon becomes clear that this is but the first in a series of cruel attempts to wrong-foot us in what turns out to be an intricate, genre-blurring mix of farce and durational performance.

Eventually the audience is funnelled into the strip-lit station vestibule where there is talk of buses – “at least six of them” – but as we stare out at the black lashing rain, an unceasing, grim liquid curtain – a particularly atmospheric design touch this – it slowly begins to dawn on us that these buses may well be fictive or metaphorical or perhaps just an exercise in group mime – they are definitely not buses in the naturalistic sense. One might even call it European in influence, were there not two Italians in the corner commenting loudly on how this wouldn’t happen at home.

One girl with glitter on her face thinks she might have seen a bus, she’s almost positive. She points, she smiles. Everyone turns to look, hopeful. It turns out to be a large van. The pathos of the moment is beautifully handled, the group choreography subtle yet forceful.

Despite not featuring in the programme and taking place on the very last day of the Fringe, this turns out to be a very well attended event, with new waves of people arriving at regular intervals. As their trains deposit them in the fluorescent hell pit of Peterborough station, these newcomers swarm towards the door in search of invisible buses, and again the pathos of the scene is quite striking.

The audience interaction  has definitely been influenced by Punchdrunk, though in place of the, by now familiar, black carnival masks, the staff all wear looks of resignation, confusion, and impassivity, pointing mutely at the stack of refund forms when faced with questions about how long the performance might last. The majority of the audience on the other hand wear matching grey masks of frustration and tired. A lone Pleasance ticket lies on the floor by the ticket barriers, being slowly and symbolically obliterated by a stream of shoes.

On a structural level at least the piece resembles Wunderbaum’s Looking for Paul, in that the long, mostly static introductory sequence suddenly and abruptly gives way to a burst of frenzied activity – though no one has anything inserted into their anus or attempts to fuck a hay bale (at least not in Peterborough, obviously I cannot speak for what happened in Stevenage).

After a long period of mumbled non-communication, one staff member finally attempts to make an announcement at the exact same moment as the Tannoy kicks in, rendering both inaudible. I keep expecting Christopher Brett Bailey to appear, killing all remnants of language with a barrage of guitar noise. This doesn’t happen.

A train is rumoured to be leaving from one platform. We hurry over there, lugging suitcases up and down stairs, only to find one of the platform staff shaking his head and saying there’s little chance of even half of us cramming onto the already full train. His timing is remarkable, and the manner in which he maintains his deadpan expression throughout is one of the performative highlights of the night.

This is followed by a slightly surreal moment in which a train is simultaneously announced to be arriving on three separate platforms which is then capped by a moment of jet black comedy in which an enterprising audience member enquires whether, should she be able to get herself to Liverpool Street instead, her ticket would still be valid, only to be informed that she would have to pay extra. Finally a train arrives on which it is just about possible to squeeze onto without having a Verity Standen moment with your carriage-mates. We embrace the opportunity, even though it means adding another hour to our journey time, having long since become meek as sheep – the psychological impact of the piece is quite impressively insidious.

By all accounts, for the remaining audience members, the experience continued long into the night, audaciously fusing elements of Hotel Medea and RIFT’s Macbeth with a growing undercurrent of despair, and only a subtle sense of the congregational providing necessary alleviation to the piece’s bleakest moments. I gather Andy Field is considering it for next year’s Forest Fringe.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha founded Exeunt with Daniel B. Yates in 2011 and remains responsible for the overall editorial management of the site. Since March 2015, she's been joint lead critic for The Stage, along with Mark Shenton. She has also contributed to Time Out, the Guardian online, The Space, and The Independent, and she reviews books for The Observer. An occasional writer of fiction, one of her stories was shortlisted for the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize.