BWW Review: TWO TRAINS RUNNING, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
It's Pittsburg, 1969, and the city's Hill District is far from the vibrant, jazz-soaked African-American neighbourhood it was in its prime. Where culture once thrived, riots and rubble now reign. Change is afoot, and affluence is no longer available to all.
August Wilson's Two Trains Running brings a shabby diner in this threatened community to life, offering a window into the lives of seven irregular regular customers, the circumstances in Pittsburg, and, ultimately, the state of America in the Sixties.
Co-produced by the English Touring Theatre and Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and directed by Nancy Medina, this performance offers an in-depth exploration of some pertinent themes. As the days pass on stage, we are invited to consider gentrification, racism, and poverty, among other significant topics.
The plot is slow and steady, but the transitions between scenes are smooth. We watch as each figure tries to make ends meet and find their way in uncertain times. Restaurant owner Memphis is determined to get a good price for his business before it's knocked down with the rest of the street, Sterling is furiously job-hunting and trying to avoid returning to the penitentiary, and Wolf is wheeling and dealing and making his own way in life.
The cast's compelling performances are a real highlight and add sparkle to this almost sluggish story. We spend so much time with each character that they feel incredibly familiar by the end. It is this richness that gives this production an edge.
Andrew French delivers a truly powerful performance as Memphis. His determination and resilience is discernible and his speeches reflect the encroaching weariness he feels as his dream seems more and more distant.
Anita-Joy Uwajeh keeps to the sidelines for most of the production, but her presentation of troubled and guarded waitress Risa is no less impressive because of this. She is the strong and silent type, and still manages to capture the audience's attention with actions that speak louder than words.
Michael Salami as ex-convict Sterling is a force to be reckoned with and seems to have been transported straight from the Sixties. He swings between desperation and ambition, and as he wins over Risa, so too he charms the audience. The tortured Hambone is also beautifully played by Derek Ezenagu; his character's storyline is one of the most emotional parts of the whole production and he performs this delicately and sensitively.
There is no doubt that the Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted Two Trains Running is intense. With so many lengthy, impassioned monologues, it requires real concentration, and while the performances of all actors are strong enough to hold your attention, it can sometimes be hard to keep up with the tales and details which weave in and out of the conversations on stage.
This weighty dialogue also means that the little action that is shown is all the more significant; there is a touch of violence and emotion beneath the surface which occasionally bubbles through in outbursts and moments of desperation. This adds to the performance as well - the tussle between Hambone and Sterling, for example, really stands out, as does the touchingly intimate moment between Risa and Sterling.
The set itself is a thing of battered beauty. Designed by Frankie Bradshaw, with a wrecking ball balanced above the restaurant, and giant posters promoting the troubled urban redevelopment plans, the significance of the show's context is clearly, and artfully, highlighted. The diner is a haven for this group - a shelter from the chaos outside which presents itself through the sound of sirens and riots heard through a door left ajar.
However, there are some elements that appear to be significant and symbolic which don't seem to be capitalised on. For example, the red door that looms within the rubble has so much promise and is alluded to a number of times throughout the play, but its moment is fleeting and feels like a missed opportunity. There is such potential for stronger use of metaphor to make more of the many themes explored in this production, or to relate them to the present day.
At three hours (including an interval), it's a lengthy show, and it's hard to get whisked away. With the abundant dialogue and limited physical action, Two Trains Running relies heavily on the way that stories are regaled by the characters to keep up some pace and intrigue.
Despite the excellent quality of each individual performance, there seems little space for contemplation, since there is so much to take in, and so much to say. Given its length, the production itself doesn't quite reward engagement by building to a clear reading - what, exactly, is this revival saying to its 2019 audience?
With so many themes touched upon throughout the performance, none of them are as easily connected with the modern day as one would expect. Nonetheless, it's a beautiful piece and certainly steals more of your heart as it goes on.
Two Trains Running is a story of struggle and suffering on a local scale; a monologue-filled microcosm that explores significant issues through personal anecdotes and private moments.
This production is heavy-going, weighed down by the sheer volume of issues it tries to examine, and it seems unclear in its wider ambitions. However, such a slow pace also offers the audience the chance to really appreciate the cast and design, both of which elevate the experience and reward patience.
We are presented with a changing world which is, for Wilson's characters, falling short on the promises of prosperity; similarly, this production falls just short of perfection.
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan