I was on a railway station platform in Ravensburg in Southern Germany some years ago when a young, blond-tousled man in a blue Hawaiian shirt pushed through the crowd and threw himself under a train. The haunting image has stayed with me ever since and I confess to feeling angry with him for turning his suicide into a horrible public spectacle. We were all deeply shocked … but then I considered the hapless train driver who could only lean on his horn in a plaintiff cry for help.
Playwright Stephanie Ridings has also been considering the plight of train drivers who suffer from a “one under” and has created a startlingly good new play about the consequences. She captures the appalling weight of the tragic instant with remarkable authenticity and takes us compassionately into the deep, wide-ranging psychological repercussions suffered by the true victims, the driver’s family.
The driver in “Unknown Male” is middle-aged mum Heather who was in charge of a 200-ton tube train when a lad with a water bottle dives in front of it. There is eye contact on his way down.
Cockney Heather is played with huge conviction by Lorraine Stanley. It’s a compelling portrayal…as her character bagatelles between utter despair – “I am a murderer” – to furious brandy bottle anger; whilst desperately clinging on to motherhood. Her soliloquy at the Inquiry – largely verbatim – is painfully matter of fact, with just a little hint of that vague promise of ‘closure.
But, as in real life, the Inquest is a long time coming and her family goes through so much in the interim.
There’s a lovely bewildered-but-determined performance by Pheobe-Frances Brown (pictured)as her 16-year-old daughter Emily who simply can’t face her Religious Education GCSE, with its untimely questions about God-given destiny. They always say “write what you know” but Stephanie Ridings has never seen such a suicide and had to delve deep into uncomfortably case archives.
She curtailed her research out of decency – but her character ploughs on were Stephanie feared to go; into the murky world of RIP websites and personal, door-stepping involvement. Emily becomes obsessed with discovering the details her mother doesn’t want to hear. It’s easier to handle an anonymous victim, but the facts are all “just a Google search away”.
Trying to hold the family together is Mark, played with a rough but caring sensibility by Ged Simmons. The poor chap also has to shift the awkward scenery which, for most of the play, looks jolly unhelpful …. until the denouement arrives.
In fact the play is peppered with unlikely elements; in particular storyline digressions which feel strangely dislocated whilst they are being told. But when the drawstrings are pulled together, they fall neatly into the bag. It’s clever, taunting writing and both Ridings and her director, Nick Walker, certainly knew what they were doing and eventually, so did we.
The attention to detail is outstanding and the emotions – onstage and in the stalls – are raw.
This play was forged at Birmingham Rep’s Foundry programme and I suspect its wider success is only a matter of time.
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