Strangers on a train are destined for disaster in Peter Arnott’s new play, which marks this December’s forthcoming 140th anniversary of the 1879 Tay Bridge tragedy. That was when what was then the longest rail bridge of its kind in the world collapsed, plunging an estimated 75 passengers and crew to their deaths. Using this as the source to imagine the inner lives of seven passengers, the result is a series of thumbnail sketches illustrating the divided and poverty-stricken society that existed in nineteenth century Scotland.
Once the mist clears on Emily James’ revolving train carriage in Andrew Panton’s production, one by one we get inside the heads of Ewan Donald’s idealistic school-teacher, Irene Macdougall’s put-upon minister’s wife exposed to the slums and Anne Kidd’s maid finally taking what’s hers. Leah Byrne and Bailey Newsome’s young couple are chasing a new life in America, while things take a lurch into full-on music hall as Emily Winter’s good-time runaway tells her story. Finally, Barrie Hunter plays the sort of predatory sleazebag who still take liberties on public transport and other places besides today.
With the storm clouds in Lewis den Hertog’s video projections gathering behind them, each character is illuminated by Simon Wilkinson’s spotlights, revealing still lives in limbo, as crossing the bridge becomes a metaphor for the potential of fresh starts destined to be cruelly dashed.
This is pretty strong stuff to kick off Dundee Rep’s 80th anniversary season, with Emily-Jane Boyle’s choreographed neo-gothic set-pieces breaking up each scene accompanied by MJ McCarthy’s brooding score. The effect of such stylised Victoriana looks somewhere between Pirandello and a 1970s portmanteau horror film, in which the thrown together participants of the latter inevitably find themselves in the waiting room of Hell.
While Arnott steers clear of well-ordered social history in favour of something more daringly fanciful, a local poignancy hangs over the show. Its final cacophonous moments are a chilling masterclass in disaster movie style hysteria, in which the ghosts of the past are brought scarily close to home.
The Herald, August 30th 2019