Review: The Stationmaster, Tristan Bates Theatre

“The train is coming…”

The third year of the From Page To Stage season of new musical theatre is now well underway at the Tristan Bates Theatre and the centrepiece of this year’s festival is a production of The Stationmaster with book by Susannah Pearse and music and lyrics by Tim Connor. The musical is an adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day (last seen in London at the Almeida in 2009) but moves the action to a small town in the Lake District in 1958.

Life in Kirby is all homemade jam, cake competitions and friendly pints down the local and railway stationmaster Thomas Price is at the heart of the tight-knit community. But behind closed doors and the net curtains lies a certain disenchantment, his marriage to Catherine is under strain and a chance encounter with the equally disaffected Anna sends their lives hurtling down the wrong tracks, a disaster further compounded by the tragedy of their ensuing actions.

The moral tangle of the first half is well essayed by a trio of powerful performances – Emily Bull’s marvellously spiky Anna despairs of life trapped as a carer for her father and is quick to protect self-interests, Jessica Sherman’s stunningly voiced Catherine is trapped by depression and a fearsomely unforgiving community who don’t believe the truth of what she has witnessed and caught between them both, Nigel Richards’ Thomas is compellingly conflicted, essentially a good man but one unable to recover from an appalling judgement call.

Tim Connor’s score reflects this complexity, MD Caroline Humphris’ piano-playing finding both folky lightness and haunting depth in the melodic swirl which boasts an impressive thematic unity. Pearse’s book struggles a little in the second act though as hurried melodrama replaces character-driven insight – Catherine in particular suffers in this respect – resulting in a climax that doesn’t quite land with the impact it could. The potential within is clear though. 

Bronagh Lagan’s direction works wonders in the intimate space of the Tristan Bates, Nik Corrall’s set working in expressionistic detail alongside a nice range of cakes, and there’s strong work from a multi-roling ensemble, Annie Wensak’s chief scandalmonger a sharply comic delight and Matt Harrop’s grieving father Martin offering the evening’s strongest musical moment. Already intriguing, The Stationmaster’s British take on repressed guilt and mob mentality could yet develop into something extraordinary.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 15th November

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