Timed to coincide with Brighton Fringe but also to celebrate the completion of a nearly two-year-long restoration project of Brighton’s electric railway, this revival of the 2011 show Magnus Volk’s Electric Train of Thought gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who would be instrumental in changing the city he lived in.
Volk’s Railway is the world’s oldest operating electric railway, transporting tourists from the Pier to the Marina over the summer months. Opened in 1883, it is the brainchild of Magnus Volk, the Brighton-born son of a German watchmaker who would grow up to be an inventor and engineer whose fascination with the power of electricity was to transform the city – not only was he the first in Brighton to equip his house with electric lighting, he also provided the electric lighting for the Royal Pavilion.
But Volk’s ride was not always a smooth one. A raised railway line was washed away by storms, taking him to the brink of financial ruin, and his ideas were consistently opposed by the local council, as well as fishermen and cabbies, for whom his railway was an unwelcome disruption to trade.
Liz Tait’s compact, 20-minute monologue takes the form of Volk making an impassioned plea to his supporters to rebuild his broken dreams. (It is billed as ‘an immersive journey’, though beyond the fact it is staged in the newly redone Visitor’s Centre and Station, so you are a stone’s throw from the trains themselves trundling in and out, there’s nothing particularly immersive about this pared back production, nor is it much of a journey.) Revisiting the role he took in the original production, Robert Cohen – who alternates performances with Julian Howard McDowell – is a nervy, impassioned Volk, keen to make a good impression but frustrated by what he sees as the short-sightedness of the city.
It’s inevitably, given the constraints of its five-shows-a-day timetable, a slight piece, and occasionally presumes a little too much foreknowledge of Volk and his creations (with no idea there had ever been an elevated railway, it took me a few minutes to latch onto the substance of Volk’s arguments). But, performed with charm and nicely smattered with enough humour to prevent it slipping into a mere history lesson, this is a pleasing insight into one of Brighton’s most beloved institutions.
Magnus Volk’s Electric Train of Thought is on until 2 June 2018 as part of the Brighton Fringe. Click here for more details.