In Fog and Falling Snow by York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre
Fri 3rd July 2015, National Railway Museum, York
When York Theatre Royal come together with Pilot Theatre along with writers Bridget Foreman and Mike Kenny, you know you can expect something grand. Their most recent original community production In Fog and Falling Snow is certainly a spectacle, though sadly lacking substance.
Ian Giles makes his ostentatious entrance as George Stephenson atop a steam train arrogantly paraded into the centre of the great hall of the National Railway Museum, promising a grandiose, epic tale. This is quickly undone by the following pantomime banter with George Hudson (played by the brilliant George Costigan), which is mostly unintelligible due to the inevitably inhospitable acoustics of the space.
Audience are subsequently led to various spots around the hall in groups of around twenty by guides. Different personal stories are slotted into nooks and crannies, on staircases, in and draping off of carriages. There are some engaging performances that set up characters we can later sympathise with, though most enactments are distracted, and swallowed by the louder scenes continuing synonymously within the huge room.
Some inconsistencies jar the production from the immersive feat that is obviously intended; some guides wear Pilot Theatre t-shirts while others don period costume and characters. One vignette, serving as a sales pitch for shares in the railway, is undermined by its novelty-hugging setting in a 1976 Japanese bullet train.
This first half of devised scenes culminates in an inescapably rousing and loveable dance and song by the cast to ‘Oh, Mr Porter!’ (another conspicuous jump in history), framing the idealism with which our protagonist, George Hudson, was elevated to the status of ‘Railway King’.
Act two takes us to another world. The unveiling of the specially created Signal Box Theatre is nothing less than awesome. Platforms 1 and 2 between them seat a tremendous 1,000 audience members around the tracks that are used to convey cast and set through the traverse stage, or rather trench, on trucks. Balconies behind the audience and above the tracks provide ample space for the cast to frolic, panic and swell, for a 40-piece choir to deliver moody soundscapes and moving songs. Memorable performances are given by Costigan, Rosy Rowley as Elizabeth Hudson, Kane Hutchinson as Jimmy Gadd and Harriet Mayne as a jailor.
It is the design of the production that shines above all; a sea of black umbrellas trawling down the tracks, a flurry of swirling dresses dancing across the trucks, a pineapple’s grand entrance upon the blade of a coal shovel, a train crash portrayed entirely by human bodies. Sadly the aesthetics are not supported by a fulfilling story. The plot is long, predictable and imbalanced; all characters make the same journey from poor to hopeful to ruined, lives are lost and lessons unproffered. Cheap laughs and cheap tears are won, this show being more a circus than a drama. In Fog and Falling Snow would have benefited from a firmer focus on an intelligent script rather than relying on its technical glamour.
The next piece hosted in the fantastic Signal Box Theatre is to be a return of the York Theatre Royal’s Olivier-Award-winning The Railway Children, written by Mike Kenny and directed by Damian Cruden. More information here.