TwentyTwentyTwo, Manchester; Monday 8th July, 2019
Theatre made national news last week with the announcement that a London playhouse is to offer advance trigger warnings to audiences who may experience distress at certain scenes in their productions.
The Silent Majority denounced the move as PC gone mad, but surely there is a powerful argument that trigger warnings for individual scenes don’t go far enough: what about those of us throwing up in disgust upon clicking GM Fringe’s “What’s on” link, why aren’t we given trigger warnings for plays with titles that absolutely do offend??
war/war/war theatre are a start-up collective hailing from Galway in the West of Ireland. One can only presume that people are happy on trains across the Irish Sea, because people sure as hell are not happy over here in these here M postcodes.
Manchester’s rickety-old piss-cupboard-trains are a collectively-shared secret shame, just like that central, grassed bit of Piccadilly Gardens – none of us like to talk about it and we sure as hell don’t appreciate outsiders coming here with their innovative, contemporary theatre pieces, showcasing our embarrassment for the whole world to see.
So before it even proverbially left the platform, a title like People Are Happy On Trains meant that this was a play in serious danger of being spectacularly derailed into a twisted, wretched heap of theatrical carnage.
And things did not start well, it was fully 11 minutes late. Sure, that’s just the blink of an eye compared to the standard shithousery that Northern Rail are capable of, but it was still annoying.
But once this unit got motoring and began to pull away, something rather special seemed to start happening.
The scheduled journey time is fifty minutes. Four passengers board, four young women. The usual bullshit proceeds: coats and bags blocking seats, vicious glances, the unbearable agony of a raised eyebrow.
Stood throughout the journey is GIRL (Emily White) – a nameless character, a near-supernatural being in some ways, just some passenger or other it seems, one who is presumably happy on trains.
But she isn’t.
She’s clearly quite sad. Clutching a man’s jumper she talks about Him, mumbling about the joy of inhaling the aromas of a lovely, smelly boy; agonising over the effort required to not think about Him.
Something very strange is going on, she’s either on some kind of drugs (maybe she’s been hanging around Piccadilly Gardens too long????) or she’s a proper nutter on the train. Or both.
People Are Happy On Trains is a mood, a really deep and stretched-out mood. A troublesome probe that penetrates and invigorates.
The performance is a heady and pleasing mixture of the abstract and the literal: the physical sways and jolts of a train journey; the trolley lady with her alcohol-based solutions; and the ramblings of GIRL, the nameless traveller who is on more than just a physical journey.
The rantings of GIRL are painful and awkward: full of horrible bits of stories, personal recollections, unpleasant memories and agonising regrets – all of it lacking the detail required to allow rational reconstruction – but that’s exactly as it would if you were listening to [random person] on the train.
The 23:34 TransPennine Express from Leeds to Manchester?
So that’s what this performance is, the theatrical equivalent of a pissed-up last train home, where fear of missing your stop battles with fear of the unknown stranger who could kill; or in the case of GIRL, the unknown stranger who could thrill.
Ironically, and this was presumably not intended, the invasive background racket coming from the pissed-up shenanigans in the actual TwentyTwentyTwo bar next door threatened to jeapordise the whole show, but somehow it suddenly all fitted – this is what happens on the last train home, GIRL rants and raves while some loud yobs mouth off further down the carriage over there.
Is she mad, or is she just sad?
People Are Happy On Trains is a journey, a wholly unexpected one. When it pulled out of the station it was an early 1980s class-143 diesel multi-unit, almost a non-starter. But by the time it pulled in an hour later, it had transformed into some sort of JNR ML500 mag-lev unit, floating along on nothing but the motive traction of despairing sadness and intriguing uncertainty.