August Wilson’s incomparable Pittsburgh Cycle, his ten part historical opus as seen through the eyes of African-Americans, reached the incendiary 1960s with his Pulitzer-nominated Two Trains Running.
The play has been revived by Northampton’s Royal & Derngate and English Touring Theatre and, while offering a glimpse of life in the Steel City, circa 1969, it largely fails to acknowledge the massive social and political upheaval of the decade.
And this new production of Two Trains Running, which opened in Northampton this week, does the same.
It suggests so much but, after a bum-numbing three hours, Nancy Medina’s production doesn’t have anything new to say.
We’re presented with a snapshot of life for a handful of locals who work and visit a little diner that’s under threat from the city’s urban renewal ambitions.
But none of the characters are really fleshed out – which is a tragedy because they all offer a suggestion of so much more – and big, momentous changes in the lives of America’s black population are only hinted at.
What you do have is a superb ensemble cast who breathe life into what little Wilson has given them.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the mentally impaired Hambone (beautifully portrayed by actor Derek Ezenagu).
Hambone is a character straight out of Shakespeare or Beckett, who spends years demanding payment – in ham – for a fence-painting job he did for a local butcher.
We have nothing but sympathy and respect for Memphis Lee (Andrew French with real fire in his belly) who, after being run off his homestead now has to fight City Hall to get full compensation for leaving his cafe to the bulldozers.
But what of Risa, the waitress, who disfigured her legs with a razor? And should we feel sympathy for bank robber Sterling (Michael Salami) whose idealism and ambition is constantly threatened by his lawlessness?
August Wilson’s engaging drama feels like a mid-season episode from a long running series – which is exactly what it is.
You feel that it is part of something much bigger – which, seen as a whole,- would provide a complete story, but, in itself, there’s a weak start, a prolonged, meandering middle, and a slightly stronger ending.
You could actually lose about half its running time and not miss a thing as customers drop into the diner, chew the fat, and then wander out.
Geoff Aymer makes a strong impression as undertaker, West, who makes a profitable living from the dying.
And Ray Emmet Brown, as a dodgy numbers runner – who does a bit of ducking and diving on the side – turns in a buoyant turn as Wolf.
But I left feeling unsatisfied, despite some captivating performances.
Frankie Bradshaw’s set includes a mysterious red door, which hints at the flimsy occult subplot, but it’s unnecessary and mostly unused.
There’s a broken jukebox in the diner but music plays in the background throughout, and poor Risa is given next to nothing to do other than pour coffee and fry chicken.
Ezenagu breaks your heart as Hambone but the sadness turns to frustration when you realise that Wilson has callously used him as a plot device.
But you feel the anger of French’s Memphis who is determined not to be a victim of the city’s social cleansing plans. He has some fine, empowering speeches that are delivered with real emotion.
Two Trains Running continues on the Royal stage until September 14 before touring to NST City, Southampton (Sept 17 – 21); Oxford Playhouse (Sept 24 – 28); Cast, Doncaster (Oct 1-5); New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich (Oct 8 -12); Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (Oct 15-19) and Derby Theatre (Oct 22-26).
Two Trains Running
This finely acted revival of Two Trains Running offers a snapshot into the lives of African-Americans at a time of huge social, cultural & political change.