From the Rehearsal Room: The Next Train To Depart

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Choo choo, choo choo ch’boogie. Take me right back to the track…John.

I know. Re-writing Louis Jordan is criminal. But in my defence I was kinda drunk at the time. No, not in the way you’re thinking!

I’d just spent three hours in Hexham watching The Next Train To Depart in rehearsal. That afternoon I consumed a tall glass of talented acting, a good measure of innovative directing and a twist of poetic playwriting. That cocktail went straight to my head!

TNTTD (as Twitter calls it) is a new one act play commissioned by Queens Hall Arts BITESIZE programme, supported by the Arts Council. It’s touring North East venues this spring, along with Lee Mattinson’s Never Forget and Laura Lindow’s Wishbone.

TNTTD was written by John Challis, hence my ch’boogie bastardisation. No, not the Challis who shouts “Marleeene” on telly! This one was winner of the 2012 Northern Promise award from New Writing North, has had his poems published widely, is doing a Creative Writing PhD at Newcastle University, and works with Cuckoo Young Writers. If you haven’t heard of him, you soon will.

BITESIZE producer Mark Labrow certainly has. Mark had an idea for a live literature event, hosted by John’s company Trashed Organ. John pitched an alternative; a poetry based play set in a rail station.

Under questioning John admits to spending a lot of time on trains. So he has the necessary source material. And, of course, any play set in that location must be about pigeons…err…there are several pigeon references in TNTTD. (“There are a lot of pigeons in train stations” says John.)

Actually, the play is a crafted tale with a lot to say about life.

Poet Dan and call centre worker Kayleigh meet by chance, are attracted to each other, and have to reckon with other halves and other lives we never see. By following the couple’s growing relationship, TNTTD is able to show rail terminuses as both a destination and nowhere. It’s a smart metaphor. We travel every day, largely on pre-fixed routes but never really get anywhere.

In rehearsal director Melanie Rashbrooke approached those weighty concepts with a lightness of touch, shrewdly avoiding the slide in ponderous philosophising.

With John, Melanie is the other half of Trashed Organ’s creative team. She brings accomplished theatrical flair to the TNTTD drinks cabinet. Her work in Mixtape (if you don’t know it, check it out) gets the most out of limited sets and spaces, and shows a wicked eye for invention.

Her rehearsal room created a complete world for the TNTTD actors with minimum fuss. She’s hands-on too. I won’t forget her platform pub quiz machine in a hurry! And she’s cleverly cast top young actors Adam Donaldson (Dan) and Alex Tahnée (Kayleigh), who bring energy, range and a genuine chemistry to the production.

Adam was a tick-ridden psychopath in Between The Lines… and hard-boiled Noir detective in The McGuffin, at Live Theatre last year. In this rehearsal he tight-roped along a platform, spun 360 degrees on one foot, bashed Melanie’s quiz machine to submission, cycled three accents in one line, and made a hilarious gag about “touching wood”. (That last one won’t make it into the show.)

With The Letter Room, the associate company created by Northern Stage in 2013, Alex co-created the aesthetically dynamic gem The Man Who Thought The Moon Would Fall Out Of The Sky. In rehearsal for TNTTD she chased train doors, studied whale bone roofs, did a splendid coat mime and raked through emotions in an improvisation. (That also won’t make it in, but was impressive.)

As TNTTD is a series of episodes in different settings, on a set with just one table and two chairs, physical skills are essential. Luckily, as Alex puts it, these are physical actors. (Fizzleactors, if u is down wit da kids.) They have the tools to create a convincing platform, coffee shop, tracks, and pub that feel like every station I’ve ever had the (dis)pleasure to wait in.

Add Adam James Cooper’s immersive sound scape to the live show and the sense of place I saw in this rehearsal will be amplified to the maximum.

Yet, despite this focus on space and physicality, when I walked into the rehearsal room the first thing I heard was: “Why does Dan say that?” Shortly after came; “Is Kayleigh trying to tell him something else?” Then; “The subtext is he’s the bit on the side.”

Whether emotionally intense or playful, every scene led to a debate about character choices. At times the discussion was firm, but always democratic. Melanie skillfully led the unpicking of John’s words, highlighting subtleties. The atmosphere was Carribean rum, lending a sweet spicy flavour to the rehearsal drink that made me so heady.

This was a serious bunch of theatre makers seeking the deeper meanings in their play. It was also a reminder that working from the text strengthens performance; the more they did, the better it got.

And they didn’t spare themselves from comedy banter either. I just can’t repeat most of it here!

It was compelling and fun to watch this group work. In their hands TNTTD is an entertaining and thought provoking play.

It will transport its audience (see what I did there?) through a relationship made in transit (and again). John’s script is the platform (last one, honest!) for a physical and emotional journey (sorry!) to a cliffhanger final decision.

As I got drunk on the rehearsal brew, I couldn’t help musing on the play’s questions. Will Dan and Kayleigh cast off old baggage? Will they take a ticket to somewhere new? Will they travel together?

Eventually I found myself asking: would I be brave enough to change tracks?

…and I was only watching the rehearsal! Imagine what’ll happen when you see the show. I’m going twice.

Woo woo, woo woo ch’boogie, take me right back to the track…John…and Melanie…and Adam and Alex…

The Next Train To Depart is now SOLD OUT at Live Theatre but you can still catch the show on tour at the following venues:

Thursday 30 January
Washington Arts Centre, 7.30pm
Buy Tickets 

Saturday 8 February
Alnwick Playhouse, 1pm
Buy Tickets 

Saturday 8 February
Seaton Delaval, 8pm
Buy Tickets 

By Ben Dickenson
@benjitoon
Live Theatre Guest Blogger (regular contributor)

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