L-R Nicola Hughes (Mammy Saunders) & Simon Coombs (Dreamy) in The Dreamy Kid - The El Train - Hoxton Hall - Photo Marc Brenner
For ‘The El Train’, Hoxton Hall is expertly turned into a New York tenement for the recreation of three of Eugene O'Neill's one-act plays.
Upon entering ‘New York at the turn of the 20th century’, the experience is further enhanced by the 4-piece band playing slow-burn jazz and blues.
Our spiritual narrator (Nicola Hughes) arrives on stage to skillfully sing The Blues, setting the tone for what is to follow. She is joined by members of the cast, who unhurriedly re-set the stage for the first piece. This ‘re-staging’, before a word of dialogue has been spoken, is surprisingly hypnotic and, as the evening progresses, makes perfect sense.
'BEFORE BREAKFAST' sees Ruth Wilson's 'Mrs. Rowland' trying to rouse her poet-husband ('Alfred') from his drink-induced slumber. This piece is actually a majestically performed monologue which details (amongst other things) the couple's precarious financial situation, the story of how they got together, his philandering, her first pregnancy, and his drinking. Through fabulous writing, and Ms. Wilson's emotive rendering, the tension builds to a dramatic climax, until the howl of pain is echoed (and overlaid) by the band, and the train passing over-head.
Again, the arriving Ms. Hughes, and the band, make a beautiful sound, while the cast re-set the stage.
'THE WEB' finds Ruth Wilson's 'Rose', a bronchial 'working girl', struggling to survive, whilst trying to avoid coughing over her baby. As the rain falls outside the apartment, her predicament seems to symbolise a general dilemma: ‘How to love, and be loved, when the very air we breathe is poison?’ Her drunken pimp, 'Steve' (Zubin Varla), arrives to demand she go out to work. Things turn nasty as he threatens to take her baby from her, before Simon Coombs' gun-toting convict, 'Tim', arrives to save the day. After this brief reprieve, needless to say, things turn bad again... this time, for good(!) While the contrivances make this piece a little difficult to invest heavily in, the performances (especially from Ms.Wilson) make it highly watchable.
As the train signals the transition, the cast re-set the stage once more, this time to its original layout. Ms. Hughes once again comes on to sing The Blues. On this occasion, however, she does not vacate the stage as before, but is helped into a nightdress, as she morphs into the dying 'Mammy Saunders', and settles into her (death) bed.
The scene is set for the final piece: 'THE DREAMY KID'. Initially Sharon Duncan-Brewster's 'Ceely Ann' and Ony Uhiara's 'Irene' discuss the whereabouts of Mammy's grand-child, 'Dreamy'. It turns out that he is wanted as much by the police, as by his dying grandmother so, when he finally turns up, it is initially only for a short while. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and grandchildren...
In all three plays, the main characters are trying to get out from the bad circumstances they are in, but fail. If the three pieces have a binding theme, it's the idea that bad choices beget bad circumstances, which create no choice at all.
The re-creation of the train rumbling overhead, symbolising the never-too-distant rumbles of doom that (sound)track the lives of the residents, is beautifully realised.
L-R Simon Coombs (Tim) & Ruth Wilson (Rose) in The Web - The El Train - Hoxton Hall - Photo Marc Brenner
The acting is generally very good although, in the performance I saw, the New York accents wandered occasionally. This was a small matter, though, and did not detract greatly from the energy of the pieces.
The direction, by Sam Yates and Ms. Wilson, is measured, and thoughtful. The costumes, worn by all (including the band), are evocative and effective, as is the set, lighting , and sound.
Special mention must go to the band (especially trumpeter Mark Kavuma's stunning tone), to Nicola Hughes’s powerful singing and, once again, to the charismatic Ruth Wilson.
As there is no interval, the cramped seating might prove slightly uncomfortable. However (if one were being charitable), one could say it’s in keeping with the period setting. All in all, I would highly recommend 'The El Train'. Go, get a ticket to ride!
Info: The El Train is showing in Hoxton Hall, London, until 30th December 2013. Book tickets