Two Trains Running is a tremendous mixture of successes, and for me, quite a few extremely weak parts as well. Curiously the writing is one that inhabits both worlds, some of the dialogue is wonderful, natural, pure and the characters at times are often strong and so vivid, you feel you know them.
Geoff Aymer forms what is predominantly the main comic character, in undertaker West, and for a while, as he was being described with flair by the other characters, I sort of hoped he wouldn't even appear and remain the character painted by Wilson's words. When he did though, it was fine, as Aymer and the writing make him a great presence, on the lookout for sugar, and well up for a tale of what item he has put in the coffin next, much to the suspicion of everyone else. The scenes subtly always benefit when West is in them.
Elsewhere we have the wise Holloway, played by Leon Harbert, the heart of the story in a way, filled with comedy and poignant tales at the drop of a hat and switch of a heartbeat in style. Harbert's portrayal is perhaps one that will grow as this tour moves on, there is, certainly, for now, insecurity in some of the lines, and because of the natural relaxed style of the character, it will over time become much stronger as the actor "relaxes" into the role.
So, yes, Hambone, and now Risa are two big issues, both portraying mental illness, the latter, self-harm in an attempt to avoid unwanted male attraction. The motive is fine, especially for this time and social situation, however, it is treated here as a joke. Either deliberately or unwittingly, there is a lot of disregards here. It is fine to cover all subjects, and things like offence are fine in context, but when handling things such as this, you need to act responsibly. The whole thing is poorly portrayed, from the reveal, the makeup, and the resolution (there is none), and it weakens the whole play as a result, maybe not for all, but maybe enough. It's easy to say that this is all relating to the time, and we have to maintain what would happen then, but, in something like this, its not the case, it doesn't serve as education, like us being taught about how black people were treated, it serves as a danger to those suffering from the issues when is belittles them in this way.
Perhaps the worst thing about Two Trains Running though as a play is that is doesn't go anywhere. This is three hours of drama in need of actual drama at its culmination. It's easy to say that Wilson creates some vivid dialogue and, some, really strong and good characters, so, that is your drama. However, when you have invested the best part of three hours into a play set in a static never-changing location, the first thing you do need is for something to happen of some significance. It's threads, and many they are, weave about, and at the end mostly fail to conclude, and as a result, the whole play peters out, and the final scene and image of the cast does nothing to disguise that fact.
The set from Frankie Bradshaw is stunning, portraying the diner full of vibrancy, and energy, and yes, still hope, and then the future atop, predicting what is to come. Lighting from Amy Mae is equally well-measured giving a nice realism to the diner, and subtle changing of time. The cast accents are for the best part OK, with a few slides at times, and there are a few scenes when excitement gets the better of them resulting in dialogue lost.
Two Trains Running is not a bad play, it maintains interest throughout, and at no point did I drift. Much of it is through hope and optimism of what might happen, as with so many threads running through it, the options were plenty. Therefore when we reach the end (which if had been half-hour earlier, more the better), with not a great deal having happened, you feel more than a little cheated. Having said all this though, I refer to my original paragraph and what this creates in it's audience, and if you want to be stirred into something from theatre, Two Trains Running will, without doubt, give you much to think about.
Strong in character and era, but lacking in story direction.
Performance reviewed: Wednesday 4th September 2019 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.
Two Trains Running runs at Royal & Derngate until Saturday 14th September 2019 before touring. Tour details here: ett.org.uk
Photos: Manuel Harlan