(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 10 August)
There was a time, more than half a century ago, when East Anglia’s market towns, as well as many across the country, each had a Station Road which lived up to its name. Then Dr Beeching swung his axe… now there are still plenty of Station Roads, but no station, let alone trains, to justify their nomenclature.
The famous Ealing film comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt was scripted by TEB Clarke and has been adapted for stage presentation by Philip Goulding. This new production by Mark Sterling has a wonderfully ingenious set by Maurice Rubens – whoever said that small-scale theatres can’t do spectacular? There’s a channel running across the stage to represent the railway track behind which the waiting-room and ticket office open in doll’s house fashion to reveal a vicar’s study and a pub bar area.
Nor is a train lacking – we actually see two of these, not to mention a somewhat decrepit bus operated by wide-boy Vernon Crump (Clive Flint). His son Harry (Rikki Lawton) is sweet on the vicar’s niece Joan (Amy Christina Murray) so afflicted by the classic duty versus love tug-of-war. The Reverend Sam Weech (Harry Gostelow) has his personal cross to bear in the shape of Joan’s retrobate father, his own brother.
The Weechs’ determination to save Titfield Station is matched by local landowner Lady Edna Chesterford (Sarah Ogley); after all, it was her ancestor who ensured that his property should be served by train. Crump senior aside, and he has a whole bag of crafty tricks in his capacious pockets, assorted men from the Transport Ministry descend with briefcases stuffed full with their own particular agendas. This being a very English comedy, there are no prizes for guessing what the end will be. The fun is in watching how that happens.
As I indicated, the set and its furnishings, including projections which take us through the countryside, are the real stars. The cast members do very well to hold their own against such opposition, bearing in mind that they are types rather than fully rounded characters. It’s episodic, which is due to the original film script, for which I suspect the copyright holders might be to blame.
But it’s a breath of rose-tinted nostalgia with never a whiff of analysis about it, and none the worse for that. And there’s even a couple of song-and-dance numbers arranged by Dick Walter and choreographed by Sidi Scott called The Ferroequinologist’s Lament. I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely a word previously alien to my vocabulary.
The Titfield Thunderbolt runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 15 August and transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 17 and 29 August.