BWW Review: THE TRAIN, Project Arts Centre, Oct 2015
What began as making a statement turned into a desperate need to stage one.
On May 22nd 1971, World Communications Day, 47 women boarded the Dublin-Belfast train with the aim of bringing back contraceptives to prove the folly of the Republic's ban on sales. For the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, the contraceptive pill was central to the protest, as condoms and spermicide would bring male desire to the fore. What they didn't anticipate was that in Northern Ireland it requires a prescription. Inspiring was the choice then to buy aspirin that the protestors defiantly swallowed on the platform on their return. Who could tell the difference?
The performativity of the event seems to be a draw for Arthur Riordan and Bill Whelan, whose new musical for Rough Magic Theatre Company is undoubtedly feminist in spirit.
The striking thing from the outset is how irreverent director Lynne Parker's staging can be, rolling out a conveyor belt of pontifical and judicial villains in Darragh Kelly's wicked brushstrokes. Light might shine as if cast through stained glass over Ciaran Bagnall's steel set, architecturally bridging the gap between church and train station, but a defiant woman's (Karen McCartney) prayer denounces a misogynistic society reflected in its Catholic teachings.
Whelan's tireless score builds momentum with shifting time signatures, allowing an accordion's sombre sustain to hang over playful hits of a piano and the sympathetic climbs of a clarinet. Riordan's lyrics pay tribute to gender politics and a movement's resolve, while checking his own position. "I've done a full 360 since the play began," sings one character, "I'm another ditzy woman written by a man."
The production feels less gutsy in the presentation of the women themselves. While Riordan has created a mash-up of real life figures, the individuality doesn't really come through. McCartney, Danielle Galligan and Sophie Jo Wasson all hold their own but they seem too confined to their musical theatre modes to explore the material dramatically. Kate Gilmore is more affecting in glimpsing the ramshackle female of the 1970s. Pushed to the fore is Lisa Lambe, who is bright as a button and her voice gorgeously pitched but she can't lead us through the fear of failure that seems to be the main narrative drive.
There is more magnetism in an absurd subplot with Emmet Kirwan and Clare Barrett as Garden of Eden expats Adam and Aoife. Here, singing and acting aren't mutually exclusive, as Kirwan conveys a man's struggle to reassess and Barrett gets ready for revolution: "Get out of my bed, get out of my sight ... What gives you the right?"
The stakes aren't fully there but Rough Magic have managed to position the famous train journey at the centre of the Irish feminist narrative, where it should be. When one of Kelly's ghouls lists off the 'sinful' repercussions of the trip - the legislation led in great part by Mary Robinson to grant a right to marital privacy, the passing of the Family Planning Bill, the reform allowing sales in the 1980s - we realise it was the first port in an process to legitimise women's control of their bodies. Those rattling railway tracks are still whistling.
The Train runs at Project Arts Centre (upstairs) as part of Dublin Theatre Festival until 17 Oct. For more information and tickets, see the Project Arts Centre website. Photo: Keith Dixon.