Investigating the controversial legacy of railway privatisation, The Permanent Way is a detailed, dry and typically forensic piece of verbatim theatre from David Hare.
Though the Vaults beneath Waterloo station may seem like a natural fit for the show’s first London revival since its 2003 premiere, director Alexander Lass does little with the bare, concrete space. While the regular rumble of trains passing overhead adds an ominous bass-note that underlines the weighty text, a minimal staging relies on little more than four wooden benches, occasionally repositioned by performers in hi-vis Railtrack overalls.
The large cast take on several roles apiece, tackling the roster of Hare’s interviewees with confidence – albeit with an occasionally distracting reliance on big, heightened deliveries. A scene where a team of labourers discuss the unregulated chaos of subcontracting in a variety of jarring accents feels misjudged.
Jonathan Coote is strong as a Transport Policeman systematically explaining the challenges of investigating an unprecedented disaster, seething with growing frustration as he watches that calamity repeated through subsequent derailments and collisions. Sakuntala Ramanee’s survivors’ group founder is compelling, her face obscured behind a medical burn mask, calmly getting on with her life despite her injuries.
Lucas Hare’s portrayal of Railtrack’s managing director is nicely nuanced, simultaneously sympathetic and spikily defensive, but it’s Paul Dodds’ John Prescott who comes off as the villain of the piece, swaggering on to offer glib soundbites, a stand-in for every politician who’s ever prioritised profits and public perception over safety.