Wednesday 11 September 2019

Two Trains Running

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
7th September, 2019, matinee

“But I’m going back one of these days…”

Opening Northampton’s Autumn/Winter season is a solid production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running from the recipient of the RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award, Nancy Medina. Medina takes Wilson’s dense, wordy text and introduces an electric physicality to proceedings in a slow burner of a play that mellows into its weighty social commentary.

A small diner, run by the stubborn but ultimately genial Memphis (Andrew French), is under threat of demolition in a neighbourhood divided by racial inequality. Across the road rival West (Geoff Aymer) runs an undertakers business that stakes its success on his pandering to the white middle-classes. The imminent burial of the local preacher and figurehead, Prophet Samuel, is causing a stir, with people coming from near and far to view the body and pat the dead man’s head for luck. Despite this sudden increase in population, Memphis relies on a daily rag-tag bunch of customers to make ends meet – from the sage but superstitious Holloway (Leon Herbert); the eager, motor-mouthed ex-con, Sterling (Michael Salami); and Hambone (Derek Ezenagu), a local handyman with learning difficulties - while loyal waitress, Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), provides healthy doses of scepticism, heart and fragility.

Wilson’s text interweaves strands of prosaic gossip and macho banter with political diatribe (there are numerous references to an upcoming Malcolm X rally), theological potency and urban myth. It’s a stunning piece of work, and as my first Wilson play it’s more than given me a taste for more of his Pittsburgh cycle. The overriding skewering of the American Dream in direct contrast with the civil rights movement packs a punch as it becomes evident that those aspirations may only be attainable in certain cultural circles. In his success, West is very much seen as a traitor to his community, yet by playing the part and placating his socio-cultural ‘betters’ he has been able to invest in real estate, while Memphis’ fight against the powers that be seems futile as his demands for a fair price are repeatedly ignored.

Meanwhile, the other characters place their futures in the hands of fate – alternately ‘playing numbers’ in the hope of striking it lucky, or visiting the local seer, the 322 year old Aunt Esther, who promises to grant their wishes in exchange for their trust. Wilson and Medina succeed brilliantly in portraying the desperation in which these characters live day to day, hand to mouth in an economically and socially unjust society. Hambone is named thus due to his decade-long dispute over his lack of payment for an odd-job he completed for a neighbouring butcher. His refrain of ‘I want my ham’ is by turns humorous, pitiful and ultimately haunting, as it comes to symbolise the ongoing fight for civil rights.

Frankie Bradshaw’s impressive design provides an atmospherically rich backdrop to the play. A huge demolition ball hangs above Memphis’ diner; a constant reminder of the risks faced by the community. Beyond the half crumbled walls looms a billboard championing low-cost housing (a replica of a real Pittsburgh billboard photographed in the programme), a faded, jaded poster demonstrating years of struggles that have been ignored.

Medina has assembled a charismatic cast, all matching one another in likability and talent. Over three hours we get to know the characters intimately, and due to the efforts of the ensemble it’s impossible not to become attached to them, celebrating their successes, and mourning their losses. I am currently reading Wilson’s Jitney (1982) – look out for it in an upcoming Read a Play a Week blog post! – a play that similarly throws a spotlight on a diverse community at threat. While I don’t yet know how Jitney will conclude, the finale of Two Trains Running is surprisingly upbeat. 

Yet, while the wrecking ball continues to weigh heavy over the stage, the bittersweet and somewhat hopeful ending remains consistent with the many half-fulfilled promises and wishes in the play: Will Memphis return South to reclaim the land taken from him by the white men? Will he attain his $25,000 asking price for the diner? Will Hambone ever get his ham? Wilson and Medina create a perfect balance of harsh realism, magic fabulism and human warmth. It’s a masterful production and, come the curtain call, it was touching to see the casts’ overwhelmed surprise at the genuinely ecstatic reaction from the small but enraptured audience.

Two Trains Running is co-produced by Royal & Derngate and English Touring Theatre. It plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 14th September, and then tours to NST City, Southampton; The Playhouse, Oxford; Cast, Doncaster; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford; and Derby Theatre, Derby.
The cast of Two Trains Running
Credit: Manual Harlan

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