This is an amazing production on a grand scale: a collaboration by York Theatre Royal, Pilot Theatre and the National Railway Museum, performed at the museum with its purpose-built Signal Box Theatre as the venue for Act II. This was my first experience of immersive theatre and I loved it!
With a recent history of putting on enormously successful productions in York, starting with The York Mystery Plays in 2012 and Blood and Chocolate in 2013, the team of three co-directors (Damian Cruden, Juliet Forster and Katie Posner) have produced an ambitious masterpiece of theatre. The cast and crew of almost five hundred York residents transport the audience to the Railway King’s Victorian York by immersing everyone into their daily lives.
Production Designer Foxton must have had a fabulous time choosing which parts of the NRM’s immense collection to use for the various staged set pieces where, in Act I, the audience are split into manageable groups to experience up close life in the time of the Railway King. Whistles are the key to the tremendous co-ordination of moving so many people effortlessly to where they need to be.
"The team of three co-directors (Damian Cruden, Juliet Forster and Katie Posner) have produced an ambitious masterpiece of theatre."
The beginning of the evening sent shivers down my spine when Stephenson’ s Rocket chugged into the Great Hall with George Stephenson (Ian Giles) himself standing on the engine directly under the statue of himself! As the engine slowly rotated George Hudson (George Costigan) appeared from the back of a wagon and asked why he didn’t have a grand statue to commemorate all his wonderful achievements for the city of York: after all it was Hudson who had persuaded Stephenson to lay the line between Newcastle and London through York rather than Leeds and overseeing the laying of 1,000 miles of railway track.
We learn through numerous characters and set pieces about the people who were affected by Hudson’s ambitious projects; the first class, second and third class. Those from first class were swept along by his sheer exuberance and enthusiasm for making yet more money, fuelled by greed and spending their fortunes on shares in numerous railway companies that were quickly set up no matter who got hurt in the process. Those from the second class were also swept along by greed but with less to invest they were forced to borrow from the railway companies in order to be part of the new growth industry so ultimately had more to lose if things went wrong. Third class people were employed by the railways and lived a hard, fragile existence. The Jenkins family were so poor their eldest daughter had to pretend to be a boy in order to earn a better wage, helping her father an engine driver as his fireman, life for these people was cheap, they could always be replaced…
This breathtaking story is told in great detail in Act II where the audience are now in the Signal Box Theatre. All the actors from the small vignettes come together and their stories and lives are expanded on. The title ‘In Fog and Falling Snow’ was used in signalmen’s guidelines and is used literally and allegorically during this fine theatrical spectacle.
Maybe it’s time York re-evaluated George Hudson’s achievements rather than remembering him as a cheat and a charlatan, without him York would not have become the centre for railway in the north giving us a journey to London in less than two hours! Maybe it’s time he had his statue?