IN BRIEF Verbatim expose of botched rail privatisation makes for compelling, chilling viewing.


It sticks in my throat and in my head.

V.O.L. The most chilling acronym in David Hare’s masterful THE PERMANENT WAY which weaves together first-hand accounts of those involved with the privatisation of British Railways in the early 1990s and its aftermath. V.O.L  means Value of Life. The financial sum that emotionally castrated corporate types nudge up and down to try to determine the financial worth of a person’s having been alive, after they have died.

I am sorry if that makes you feel as sick as it does me, but it is an integral part of David Hare’s vital public revisiting of the many hours of interviews that he and Out of Joint company undertook to weave together the story of incompetence at the heart of the rail privatisation, and of a terrifyingly quick succession of four rail disasters – Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar- which claimed dozens of lives and hundreds of casualties.

This revival of Hare’s play from 2003 gives us a valuable illustration of the corporate mindset, where a 30% increase in passenger numbers is viewed as a “bit of bad luck”, and where those in charge decide to “push through (with privatisation) and see what happens” even though they don’t have the faintest idea what the outcome will be.

The figures etch themselves upon us – the money men, blinded to everything but a share price; the hapless suits who pass the blame and rely on broken chains of accountability to smokescreen their incompetence: and most moving, the ordinary travelling public who are doomed to always pick up the tab.

Corporates and individuals are juxtaposed to stark effect- bland brand babble against potent human experience, the language exposes the fake from the real, the good from the bad, the competent from the incompetent. Hare’s humanity, finely-tuned ear and clear-eyed editing expertly brings out the fundamentals of the words and their speakers.

Simply staged in the round, the play’s lack of visual elements does not matter. This is a vital play about real people which gives voice to the voiceless and exposes a system hopelessly corrupted at all levels.

The capable nine-strong cast each take a number of roles effectively. Alexander Lass’s direction is simple and humane, as befits the script’s forensic focus.

This is theatre at its most potent and relevant, skilfully building truth and fostering righteous anger at the terrifying injustice of it all. And after sixteen years it still seems just as relevant as it ever was.

With trains rumbling overhead at Waterloo Station, Debbie Hicks’s production couldn’t be more timely; as the UK stares down the barrel of a loaded Brexit, perhaps we should stop to ask- do we trust those who have their finger on the trigger? Or will it be another case of “push through and see what happens”?

THE PERMANENT WAY concluded its run at The Vaults on 17 November

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