Review: In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum

Paul Osborne as Albert Jenkins with the ensemble cast. Photograph: Anthony Robling
2 Jul 2015 @ 11.42 am
| News

In Fog And Falling Snow by York Theatre Royal, Pilot Theatre and National Railway Museum

National Railway Museum

Until Sat Jul 11, 2015

£16-£22

Theatre Royal website

If you don’t already have tickets for In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum, get on the phone right now and book them. Stop reading this, pick up the phone, and book them.

(Please come back after you put down the phone…)

From the opening scene, where George Stephenson steams into the building on his famous ‘Rocket’, to the last, when George Hudson’s coffin makes its final journey, this show is a triumph.

Directors Damian Cruden, Juliet Forster and Katie Posner have created a theatrical experience that you are very unlikely to forget.

A tale of four Georges

This is the story of George Hudson, ‘the Railway King’, but the show would be very different without three other Georges: George Leeman, George Stephenson, and George Jenkins.

You won’t have heard of George Jenkins, because she is the creation of Bridget Foreman, co-writer of the show with Mike Kenny.

The Jenkins family story runs through the play, personalising and embodying the story of so many people crucial to George Hudson’s rise, and ruined by his fall.

I don’t want to spoil the story by saying too much, but her final scene with George Hudson is deeply emotional without being simply a tear-jerker. The role is shared between Olivia Ledden and Charlotte Wood – we saw 17 year old Charlotte, and she clearly has a great acting future ahead of her.

Moving story… the production makes the most of its NRM setting. Photograph: Nick Ansell
Moving story… the production makes the most of its NRM setting. Photograph: Nick Ansell

It can be easy for writers of historical plays and books to slip into teaching mode – ‘Here is what happened – sit down, and I’ll tell you the dry facts’.

Foreman and Kenny never fall into that trap, using individuals and families to stand for whole groups of people affected by George Hudson’s success and ultimate downfall. We meet these characters first in the scenes enacted in the museum itself.

Night at the museum

On arrival, you will be given a coloured sticker denoting the group you belong to. Immediately after the beginning of the show, each group is led around six scenes.

They can be viewed in any order, and take place around the Grand Hall and Station Hall. The walking is not too difficult, and there are some seats provided at each performance area.

The Signal Box auditorium. Photograph: John Saunders
The Signal Box auditorium. Photograph: John Saunders

The scenes do not start until the entire group has arrived. As you move from place to place, you pass little knots of actors in character, talking or working.

The whole effect is very impressive, and gives an entertaining introduction to the story of the second half.

After an interval, you take your seats in the 1,000-seat Signal Box Theatre, specially transported from Toronto in six shipping containers.

Two long sections of raked seating face each other across a railway track. Moveable sections of stage make this a really versatile performance area, with a raised bridge at each end to give a useful variation in height.

Cast of thousands

Rosy Rowley as Elizabeth Hudson. Photograph: James Drury
Rosy Rowley as Elizabeth Hudson. Photograph: James Drury

A little over 200, actually, but certainly the biggest I’ve ever seen! Every single person on the stage is an amateur, with the exception of George Costigan as Hudson.

However, the standard of the entire cast quickly makes you forget that Costigan is the only professional.

It is extremely difficult to pick out individual performances, but I especially enjoyed Rosy Rowley as an unforgettable Mrs Hudson, with her malapropisms and down-to-earth manner.

She turns on a sixpence from humour to pathos, and is an excellent foil to Costigan’s Hudson.

Paul Osborne is a marvellous Albert Jenkins, and has to be congratulated on his very believable Geordie accent.

Ian Giles is an impressive George Stephenson, his air of thoughtful reason a fine foil to Hudson’s exuberance and ambition.

Finely nuanced performance

George Costigan has, of course, been a regular on TV and in films for many years. He’s played everything from the head of a family being haunted by an elderly Jewish ghost, through out-for-fun Bob in Rita, Sue And Bob Too, to Max Capricorn (cyborg owner of a doomed spaceship) in a Doctor Who Christmas special.

Costigan’s performance as George Hudson is what holds the play together.

Whether in good times or bad, his portrayal of Hudson helps us see so clearly the character of the man who believed that bigger is better, and parties are more fun than account books.

His George Hudson is not a buffoon or a crook – just a man who wants to spend an inheritance making a name for himself, and money for all his investors, big and small.

George Costigan (right) as George Hudson and Ian Giles as George Stephenson. Photograph: Anthony Robling
George Costigan (right) as George Hudson and Ian Giles as George Stephenson. Photograph: Anthony Robling

Even when we can see that his actions are foolish, and bound to end badly, we still find ourselves hoping that things will come right in the end.

This is a finely nuanced performance of a very complex (and potentially unlikeable) character, and has the charisma which the real man would have needed in order to persuade so many people to invest in his schemes.

Well looked after

The directors and writers deserve great acclaim for their inspired creation of the show.

But I must also mention the scene shifters in the second half, who have to push and pull the moveable sections of stage, often with groups of actors still on them, which cannot be an easy task.

The choir, and music throughout, are very impressive, and the choreography and costumes are excellent.

There are some issues in the first half of having sound from one scene audible in another, and occasionally the sound from the mikes was a little low and temperamental, but these really are minor quibbles.

Wheelchair access for this unusually staged performance is very good. Escorts greet you as you enter the building, spending the first half of the show ensuring that you get to the performance areas quickly, and that you can see well when you get there.

I have never been so well looked after at a show, and I am very sorry that I cannot thank my escort by name, as I omitted to ask it.

There are ramps where needed, and two disabled toilets opposite the entrance to the Station Hall. There are no toilets in the Signal Box Theatre.