31 Hours is called 31 Hours simply because that is, apparently, the average interval between railway suicides in the United Kingdom. Six, maybe seven years ago, I shared an office with someone who commuted into central London on the Great Eastern Main Line in and out of Liverpool Street. He noted that the train service, then operated by National Express East Anglia, was gradually recovering at a faster pace after line blockages caused by a passenger suicide or attempted suicide. There has been acknowledgement amongst regular railway passengers of the sheer number of fatalities and life-threatening injuries sustained by people hurling themselves in front of passing trains for some years now. In 2003, a television series broadcast on ITV London, The Tube, included an episode called ‘One Under’, the title being the phrase used by employees on the London Underground, usually translated on public address announcements and travel updates as ‘person under a train’.
As a friend never seems to tire of telling me, in 2011, a distraught man went as far as to issue a public apology via the local newspaper, for any distress rail passengers at Wimbledon station would have witnessed seeing his father die in broad daylight. That station now has barriers up making it quite impossible for all but the most determined of people to reach the platforms where, as the announcements put it, “the approaching train is not scheduled to stop at this station”. These are the sorts of stories 31 Hours considers – I have deliberately avoided giving details of the play’s own narrative.
The four main characters comprise a team within the specialist cleaning branch of Network Rail, John (Abdul Salis), Ste (James Wallwork), Neil (Salvatore D’Aquilla) and Doug (Jack Sunderland). Due to the nature of the narrative, a large number of minor characters are introduced. Technically, this leaves little room for all of the characters to be properly developed. This, I hasten to add, is an entirely superfluous complaint. It doesn’t take very long to explain some brief details about a person’s personal circumstances and how it is that they ended up, as it were, not standing away from the platform edge.
But it would be misleading to portray the show as ninety minutes of depressing sob stories. There’s the impact on the train drivers to take into account, as well as what needs to be done following a suicide on the line. Perhaps surprisingly, as the late Leonard Cohen used to say in his final years, “cheerfulness kept breaking through”. But the humour helped the team working on the railways to keep a sense of perspective, and was largely either banter between colleagues or lampooning impenetrable corporate-speak, and not in any way making light of the gravity of the passenger deaths highlighted.
Having worked as a project administrator on a Network Rail station redevelopment in its closing stages, I was familiar with the railway industry jargon used in the play. It was still very pleasing to hear them explained as the terms cropped up. This well-researched script works well in a mostly rapidly paced production (the speed noticeably slows part-way through the second half), with the moments of comic relief contrasting brilliantly with the hard-hitting (pun acknowledged but certainly not intended) nature of the main stories.
While some facts and statistics are included, the play never overdoes it, and the bulk of the show is focused instead on some engaging personal stories. In some respects, it would be quite wrong to say I enjoyed the performance: there is no pleasure to be had in considering the plight of those who have reached the point where there are no reasons to continue with their lives, for whatever reason.
An admirable play with compelling performances, this intriguing and informative production doesn’t apportion blame or offer tidy solutions to a persistent problem. The script is poetic when it wants to be, other times flowing between characters so much it requires impeccable timing and pacing, which this cast possesses in abundance.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Every 31 hours, someone takes their own life on the railways in the UK rail network. It is 10 times more likely to be a man.
‘100 years ago the biggest killer of young men was war, now they kill themselves.’
John, Doug, Ste and Neil work on the railways. They won’t sell you a ticket and they don’t drive a train… 31 Hours is the story of four men who clean up the aftermath of rail suicides. It is about the slippery reality of mental health and the inability to communicate issues. Writer Kieran Knowles (Operation Crucible) skilfully interweaves the story of the men who clean up after incidents with those who are driven to take such desperate measures. It is an analysis of the choice and an exploration of the consequences.
Filled with humour and humanity it explores four men’s inability to talk about their emotions and the consequence of their silence.
Cast in order of speaking
John – Abdul Salis
Ste – James Wallwork
Neil – Salvatore D’Aquilla
Doug – Jack Sunderland
The action takes place on a Tuesday morning somewhere on the railways.
The performance lasts approximately 80 minutes with no interval.
Director – Abigail Graham
Designer – Andrew D Edwards
Lighting Designer – Sally Ferguson
Sound Designer – Adrienne Quartly
Casting Consultant – Sophie Parrott CDG
Production Manager – Anoushka Hughes-Lewis
Stage Manager – Rachel Graham
Producer – Annabel Williamson
Work gear provided by Arco (R)
The World Premiere of
by Kieran Knowles
The Bunker Theatre
Tuesday 3 October to Saturday 28 October
Social Media: @31HoursPlay, @W14Productions, @BunkerTheatreUK