All aboard a new and improved 'The Train' Neil Peart, legendary drummer with the Canadian rock band, Rush, believed by many to be one of the greatest drummers of all time decided, at the height of his fame, to undertake drum lessons because he believed he could improve. This attitude of always wanting to do better, one of the hallmarks of greatness, is obviously shared by Rough Magic. With their critically acclaimed musical, “The Train,” which premiered in 2015 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, already an audience favourite, it would've been easy to sit back and take an "if it's not broken, don't fix it” attitude and settle for really good. But Rough Magic don't do really good. Rather, director Lynne Parker, along with Bill Whelan and Arthur Riordan, have got most of the old gang back together to take “The Train” from the 1970s into the 21st-century, with a new and improved version which does not disappoint.
Using as its linchpin the “Contraceptive Train” journey to Belfast, undertaken on May 22nd, 1971, when 47 women travelled North to buy contraceptives in direct contravention of Irish law and Catholic doctrine, “The Train,” tells the tale of these rebel angels from the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, and of a momentous day that almost ended in disaster. Whereas previously this historical journey dominated “The Train,” it now informs, and is informed by, a deeper exploration of the culture and context that surrounds the birth, and the battles, of feminism in Ireland. The parallel allegory of Adam and Aoife, which runs alongside "The Train's" central story, does much of the work in this regard, and takes up a sizeable proportion of the running time, before both stories dovetail neatly at the end. The shifts may be subtle in places, more pronounced in others, but the overall effect is to broaden “The Train's” context and relevance. If, at times, it risks offering a musical polemic, it never gets lost to the lecture, and when its rousing finale pulls into the station you’re up on your feet in solidarity. For perhaps the most important shift in this revised “The Train” is the shift from history to immediacy, from that of a story told with an ending, to that of a story which continues, or, in some ways, has only just begun.
In some respects, music by Bill Whelan, with book and lyrics by Arthur Riordan, performed live by Guy Rickarby on percussion, Conor Sheil on clarinet, and Andrew and Cathal Synnott on keyboards, really shouldn’t work as well as it does. With no big show tunes, no obvious numbers you go away humming, or lyrics you can’t help singing, “The Train” seems to work within a musically tight range, feeling more like an earnest concept album than a musical at times. Yet, like its take on narrative, or its slightly pared back set design by Ciaran Bagnall, “The Train,” musically, and theatrically, displays an almost Brechtian self-awareness. The object seems to be to evoke a response from the audience, to bring them to a place of shared understanding, rather than to dazzle them with jazz hands or singalongs. Performers Danielle Galligan, Kate Gilmore, Lisa Lambe, Karen McCartney and Sophie Jo Wasson reprise their roles as loud and proud feminists, respectable birds and repressive nuns, delivering excellent performances across the board. As does Ross Gaynor and Darragh Kelly, with the latter’s scene stealing priest being astonishingly good. Clare Barrett as Aoife, and Louis Lovett as Adam, are breathtakingly brilliant as the ideal Irish couple living under Catholic scrutiny. Throughout, Lynne Parker directs with deftness, transforming what was previously a thoroughly enjoyable experience into something truly memorable and moving.
In the epic present tense, “The Train” is not backward about coming forward with regards to its political position. From #Wakingthefemists to Repeal the 8th, “The Train” recognises the battle for equality and autonomy for women continues. Irish culture may have changed, but for many women the song remains the same. “The Train” is intent on singing a new song. An irresistible song. One that might have a 1970’s vibe to it, but a song new, and for now, that will have you on your feet and cheering.
“The Train” by Arthur Riordan and Bill Whelan, directed by Lynne Parker and produced by Rough Magic, runs at The Abbey Theatre until April 15th before transferring to The Mac, Belfast from April 19th to 23rd