Redlynch Players Redlynch Village Hall, Lover, Salisbury Caroline Burr 24 May 2023
This 2008 play is based on a 1953 classic Ealing comedy film, starring Stanley Holloway and Sid James, which charts the story of villagers desperate to save the Titfield to Mallingford railway line from closure by British Rail. The line is losing money, but to save it, Lady Edna Chesterford and the vicar Sam Weech decide to keep it going themselves by using a train that has been in a local museum.
Challenges to their endeavours come from both Vernon Crump, who sees his chance to set up in competition with a local bus service and the railway authorities who must be convinced that the villagers are competent to run a railway.
I was intrigued to see how the Players would conjure all of this up on stage, and could only guess that sound, lighting, effects, and costumes would need to be employed to transport us back to the era of steam. All of this was achieved and more as the audience was whisked back to 1952 with the careful positioning of set dressing, simple use of British Rail backcloths, tickets in the form of luggage labels and Union Jack flags.
To depict a railway platform a long narrow stage had been constructed. This also became a vicarage, a pub and other locations when a few simple pieces of furniture were brought on. Unfortunately, the lack of depth in the acting area meant that the actors were often in straight lines and the play became very static. However, the chosen staging also meant that entrances and exits had to be through the auditorium, and this along with some audience participation and breaking of the fourth wall made the evening feel quite immersive and intimate.
The fourteen parts were played by only eight actors which demanded some quick costume changes and switches of character. The gender-blind casting was great fun, with Sue Ball convincingly playing the aged artful Vernon Crump and a hilarious Mark Newman reinventing himself as an over-the-top Mrs Bottomley. Other cast members included Ali Silver as the forceful Lady Chesterford, who had good comedy timing, and Andrew Harrison-King, who was convincing as both the Vicar and the Town Clerk. Jenny Mason delivered an authentic Welsh accent as Miss Coggett, whilst we warmed to the affable lush Mr Valentine, played by Desmond Longfield. Sarah Newman proved herself a very versatile actress as she played three parts (all men!) with three different accents. She has a fabulous voice and stage presence along with great comic timing. The cast is packed with larger-than-life stereotypes, so it would be easy to try too hard and succumb to overacting but that wasn’t the case in this production.
I had a question mark as to whether the piece had stood the test of time with its gentle humour and simple plot, but with the attention to detail of the Director Lloyd Perry, enthusiasm of the cast and lashings of nostalgia it was a fun evening.
It was terrific to see that the four-night run of The Titfield Thunderbolt was sold out before opening night. It’s encouraging to see amateur theatre so well supported and very appropriate when the theme of the evening was the importance of community.