First published in The Times, Thursday September 5 2019
The City of Discovery’s best-known stories and characters inspire all the shows in Dundee Rep’s 80th anniversary programme. The season has opened on perhaps the most infamous event in the city’s history: the collapse of the original Tay Bridge during a gale in December 1879 with the loss of all 75 people making the journey by train from Fife to Dundee that night.
The bare facts of the tragedy were famously recounted in William McGonagall’s piece of doggerel The Tay Bridge Disaster. Peter Arnott, the playwright commissioned by Dundee Rep, is faced with a more onerous task: how to make drama out of a story about which everyone knows the ending.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Yes, the bridge still collapses in Andrew Panton’s production, and in a viscerally impressive sequence of lighting and sound effects, we are left in no doubt that everyone on board succumbs to a watery demise. Arnott’s inspired touch is to foreground a series of fictionalised accounts of the real people who died in the disaster. The play is, in effect, a portmanteau of short dramas.
In outline, the seven characters sharing a carriage in Arnott’s play appear disparate, but their stories share small epiphanies that lead them down unexpected paths (Robert Louis Stevenson’s notion that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” would make a fitting epigraph for this work).
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
We meet an elderly maidservant (Anne Kidd) who has entered uncharted waters following the death of her mistress after a lifetime of service. Mrs Easton (Irene Macdougall), a minister’s wife, laments and is confronted with her own complicity in the impoverished “lives of others”. A fallen woman (Emily Winter) is discarded by her benefactor and faces an uncertain future.
Arnott’s collection of vivid, insightful monologues amounts to a rich tapestry, even if it misses a single strong dramatic thread linking everything together (our prior knowledge of the characters’ impending fate isn’t quite enough to keep us on the edge of our seats). Within these limitations, the ensemble works wonders and Panton has created a polished, well-choreographed production that makes brilliant use of Emily James’s deceptively simple rail carriage set and beautifully intertwines the storytelling with Simon Wilkinson’s sepia-toned lighting and Lewis Den Hertog’s ominous video designs.