Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Review: People are Happy on Trains (war/war/war Theatre, GM Fringe)

Sunday 7th July 2019
Twenty Twenty Two, Manchester

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from 1st-31st July. I’m continuing my little journey through the festival programme, and the next show I saw was People are Happy on Trains by Galway-based war/war/war Theatre, which is on at Twenty Twenty Two, Dale Street, Manchester.

I saw People are Happy on Trains on Sunday 7th July, and it was the second play I saw that day. The first was All Things Considered’s Wake Up, Maggie! (which I talked about in my previous review), and I must say that the two shows made for quite a double bill. The contrast between the two was really quite striking!

Written by Anna Doyle and directed by Aoife Delany Reade, People are Happy on Trains is a one-act play exploring the complex emotional journey that profound grief can take. This metaphorical journey is staged as an actual journey – the train trip from Glasgow to Edinburgh – which is presented in real-time. It is staged on a very simple set: three sets of chairs with a central aisle conjure up a train carriage, and the rest is left to our imagination (led by the actors’ performances, of course). Although – as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews – I don’t like to know too much in advance about the plays I go to see at the festival, I did have a bit of background info on this one, as I interviewed Doyle about the production for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June.

Emily White plays the central character, who is named in the credits simply as ‘girl’ (no character names are used in the actual performance). As we learn early on, this girl is travelling to Edinburgh to collect the personal effects of a loved one who has died. As she enters the carriage and takes her place towards the front of the stage area, she seems entirely alone. But it’s not long before others quietly move in behind her.

Credited only as the seat number they occupy on stage, Ellen McBride, Hanahazukashi Mai and Una Valaine play 59, 57 and 54 respectively. Following the girl into the carriage and taking their seats, it’s quickly apparent that these women are not simply fellow passengers travelling to Edinburgh.

People are Happy on Trains is an expressionistic piece that explores grief. The girl has lost her brother – her best friend – and the experience of this is described in fragmentary monologues from White, who exudes a control and earnestness deliberately at odds with the pain of the story she is telling. This control is juxtaposed with the freer expression of McBride, Mai and Valaine’s performances – these are even more fragmentary, but hint at the bewildering array of emotions that collide and conflict following a bereavement.

One of the striking things about People are Happy on Trains is the way the piece powerfully juxtaposes style and content. The performances and dialogue are stylized, expressionistic and mannered, and yet the story told is painful and raw – even brutal, in places. Despite the constrained stylistics, there is an undeniable universality to the narrative. Similarly, while the fragmented monologues describe a very specific relationship and backstory, the show constantly feels as though it is describing something more generalized and communal.

Strange as it may seem to say about a play that deals with the pain and confusion of grief, I found the performances in People are Happy on Trains almost pleasantly hypnotic. There’s a balletic style to some of the group pieces – an analogy drawn with a piano recital, which begins with Valaine and Doyle’s poetic writing, moves between the actors with a neatly choreographed grace. And I also enjoyed the way the sounds and movement of the train journey are signalled by the actors to punctuate the piece.

These elements – and the lyrical narration of Doyle’s script – lend the play a sort of dreamlike quality. Again, this makes for an interesting juxtaposition, as the girl’s story seems to touch on something very human and real, and yet the style of the production encourages the audience to see it is as unreal – even hallucinatory, at times. This contradiction is thought-provoking, but also relatable. Grief is contradictory, and the feeling of being both real and unreal at the same time is something many people will be able to identify with.

This is undoubtedly an ensemble piece, which relies on a certain chemistry between McBride, Valaine and Mai, as well as a brittleness in their interactions with White. It’s hard to single out one actor in a piece of this nature, but I will say that I found myself particularly drawn to McBride’s performance as the woman in Seat 59. Bristling with barely-concealed anger from the moment she arrives on stage, McBride delivers some of the harsher lines of the play, revealing the darker and more brutal emotions that underlie the grieving process. Her compelling and commanding performance ensures that this is a bit of a sucker-punch, but it is contextualized by the more wistful, nostalgic and reassuring performances of Valaine and Mai.

Overall People are Happy on Trains is both heartfelt and controlled – a serious meditation on the experience of grief. It makes intelligent and confident use of stylistic constraints to deliver a clever piece of contemporary theatre. I look forward to seeing more from war/war/war Theatre in the future.

As a short addition, I would like to mention how much I liked the venue chosen to stage this production. I’d not been to Twenty Twenty Two before, and I wasn’t sure how well a basement ping pong bar on Dale Street (with an entrance in a loading bay on Little Lever Street) would work as a performance space, but I really liked the vibe! The minimalist style and décor of Twenty Twenty Two really suited People are Happy on Trains, and there was a great atmosphere in the bar itself.

People are Happy on Trains is on at Twenty Twenty Two on Dale Street from 7th-10th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

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