LAST night we walked amid the locomotives and crossed the tracks. This is not as dangerous as it may sound. We weren’t hopping lines but watching a play.
Nearly two years ago, York witnessed a remarkable performance when Blood + Chocolate took to the streets of the city. Written for the people of York and performed by them, that drama was inspired by the chocolates the Lord Mayor sent to troops on the front line in 1914, packed into tins by Rowntrees.
The wandering show was a joint effort by Pilot Theatre, Slung Low and York Theatre Royal. Now a different collaboration takes shape with In Fog And Falling Snow.
As with Blood + Chocolate, the story is set in York for York people to perform, and for other York people to watch. It is all pleasingly inclusive, letting you enjoy the play for what it is, while also spotting friends who have a role (that scene-setting beard is certainly coming on nicely).
This time round, the York story being told is that of George Hudson, the Railway King of York, who rose high while shaping our railways, then fell into ignominy when everything he had created collapsed, taking many who had believed in him down too, clutching now worthless shares.
The Theatre Royal joins again with Pilot Theatre and, this time, the National Railway Museum, which provides the unbeatable setting for the drama, written by Bridget Foreman and Mike Kenny, and directed by Damian Cruden, Juliet Forster and Katie Posner.
This rail journey comes in two stages. For the first part, the audience is divided into groups and led round the museum as actors perform on and around the locos. Then after the break, the play continues in the tented theatre.
The play opens tremendously, as George Stephenson steams in on his Rocket. He is splendid, trim and proper, an accusation in flesh to his showman partner George Hudson, rotund, avaricious and driven by rash ambition, pursuing his dream of a northern powerhouse long before that other George had the idea.
The two men stand on the engine and bicker, with Hudson (George Costigan) ruefully pointing out that the city of his glorious rise, before his later sudden fall, does not remember him. ‘What no statue?’ says Hudson. ‘Not even a plaque? A tea towel?’
The first half is delightful, if a tad exhausting, as you tramp from scene to scene. Often you can hear another section being acted out nearby, but in the end this is all very enjoyable, especially the massed rally before the interval, in which actors and audience become the braying crowd, greedy for shares that will wither to nowt in worth.
The second half in the tented theatre is more traditional, with ranks of seats on either side of a narrow railway track, through which sections of stage can be wheeled. Some of the scenes really do astonish, including the drunken dinner at Guildhall. The long table is fully laden with diners and drink as it slides into view. Later a tragic accident is summoned up with little more than sliding sections of stage colliding, with one loco represented by only by the actors, and the other built of white boxes scattered by the crash (a similar sort of trick to those umbrellas in the York Mystery Plays three years ago).
In Fog And Falling Snow might have been too long for some tastes (some audience members could be heard making this point on the way out), but it was done brilliantly, making solid and inventive use of a cast of 200.
Putting together something like this must be a headache to end all headaches, but the result is well worth. Sadly, it ends tonight, so apologies for the late notice. Our group visit was booked ages ago in part so that we could witness the role behind the beard.
But knowing York these days, it shouldn’t be too long before another inventive drama takes shape. And you know, sometimes theatre works really well away from the theatre.