First published in The Times, Saturday September 9 2017
What could be timelier, in this era of Brexit, mass migration and right-wing populism, than a revival of David Greig’s play about borders, identity and the perceived threat from immigrants? Europe, one of the playwright’s earliest successes, was first performed at the Traverse a quarter of a century ago, yet its portrayal of a rundown railway station in a small European town, haunted by refugees and dejected locals, might have been dreamed-up yesterday.
Though Greig’s play is concerned with the thorny issues of European integration and free movement, it explores these themes through a number of intertwined personal stories. In John Durnin’s production, Mark Faith and Joanna Lucas play Sava and Katia, refugees using the town’s trainless station as a stopping-off point en route to busier, more anonymous surrounds.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Katia wants to move on before they’re noticed, but Sava, a former railwayman, is taken with the station’s faded grandeur. “We’re not in some savage country on the other side of the world,” he says. “Look around you . . . we’re still in Europe.” He strikes up a friendship with Fret (Alan Steele), the stationmaster charged with winding the place down, while Katia forms a relationship with Adele (Rebecca Elise), the porter, who dreams of escape from this dreary, predictable and overlooked dot on the map.
Durnin’s cast does an admirable job of inhabiting these characters, and many of the individual scenes are well handled by the director. Elise is touching as the bored local woman who seeks solace in holiday programmes and the European capitals of her imagination while Jack Wharrier is supremely menacing as Berlin, the leader of a trio of young men, raddled and aggravated by unemployment, who take out their frustrations on Sava and the others.
The pace quickens in act two as the different plot strands pull together. Frustratingly, the episodic shifts in Durnin’s production are hampered at times by Becky Minto’s set, an at-first impressive but rather inflexible recreation of a station platform that impedes fluid movement between scenes and at times proves something of an obstacle course to the actors.
Still, there are pleasures to be found in the smaller scenes and two-handers, of which the director seems most in control, and the prescience of the scenario. Greig’s script compels with its characteristic combination of naturalistic dialogue and lyricism, including a vivid realisation of the town and its surrounds. While uneven, the production is a timely revival of the fact that, in style and concerns, this is a playwright who arrived almost fully formed.