As you settle down in the seats of the Gasworks theatre to watch Glassbreaker Productions’ Two On The Night Train, the lights dim, and an ominous red glow within the audience emerges. You wonder if it was there previously, (is this the theatre or the show?), and then the set lights up, the soundscape begins, and our attention shifts to centre stage. But the soft confusion of the red glow remains. As Frazer Lee, who plays the unnamed male lead, peers out into the darkness, he too sees a glow, and the play begins to unfold slowly, confusedly in a dream-like fashion.
Two On The Night Train is not a production with a simple digestible meaning or message. It’s murky existential theatre. Two nameless characters on a train, unsure of destination or departure, unsure of themselves and each-other, are found meeting, repeating, crossing and leaving each-other in a series of scenes that could either be linear or jumbled in time. As the play progresses we’re no further into a narrative than we are in the first scene, but we are deeper into an understanding of the nature and being of these characters. We’ve also had an array of philosophical questions hung in the space in front of us, this is to say, questions that aren’t asked of the audience or of the characters, but that drift out of the play, there if you want to jump into them.
As with all plays which gaze inward, two major things are needed. There’s a willingness/energy required of the audience to stay engaged and receptive, and there’s a clarity/drive of the production needed to sustain and engender the former. Unfortunately here, a lack of clarity plagues the production, and the goodwill of its audience is pushed to the limit. As the playwright and director, Martin Quinn, admits in his own production notes, he knows why he’s writing this play and these questions, but he may not know what’s ultimately in front of him. He asks “as to what it’s about, well, if anyone figures it out, please let me know.”
Quinn certainly has a great premise here and is making theatre boldly, but is perhaps too close to his own creation. There’s a feeling that the production needed some more time in the oven, or perhaps for direction to be separated from the writing, or a dramaturg brought in to query and poke at the play.
Frazer Lee and Katherine Pearson, as the two leads, do what they can to keep the play on its tracks. Their chemistry as the two characters warm or bristle to each other scene by scene is a particular highlight. Pearson certainly has the command and presence to drive a two-hander, and both actors have a wonderful delicacy to the range and volume of these confused characters. Lee’s character stutters and spurts with a need for mental and philosophical certainty and immediacy, while Pearson’s flows with the grey and a body-first approach to meeting and understanding the world. Unfortunately, they both struggle with characters that are often adrift. It feels like they are without a constant anchor of character and action. Another problem for them is the heightened and formalised dialogue, which they present loftily. It’s an unnecessary register that adds little to the play, and verges on pretentious.
What is immediately striking about the production as a whole, is the interplay between the set and the lighting. Alaina Bodley has crafted a beautiful unified set of this night train, made of a series of symmetrical spaces, each with their own style and theatrical opportunity. It’s immediately a train, but unencumbered by the realism of a carriage. Adelaide Harney then lights it up, with style and skill, and seizes the possibilities of Bodley’s set and takes them to a new dimension. It’s a wonderful meeting of talent. If anything, the set and lighting are dialled up a touch too high, and it starts to feel like they are compensating for action that isn’t quite at their level of quality. Edwin Cheah rounds out the production with his sound design, but is not on par with the other production elements. As the characters remark on a re-occurring ominous sound, its potentially a missed opportunity to have the same sound of train tracks rumble by at different volumes.
As a whole this is young, hungry, and smart theatre with a unique voice made by a group of talented professionals. While this production is a misfire, you can be sure that the next won’t be.