It isn’t often a show begins with an apology, but given the title of this one, A Good Service on All Other Lines, it was perhaps apt that a brief word of contrition about the delay in getting started set the scene for some rail-related stories and songs. This might potentially have been a very gloomy show – one of several common causes of delays on the London Underground, aside from signal failures, defective track, train breakdowns or other mechanical failures, is passenger suicide (whether successful or not). While there are plays that deal with those sorts of issues – Kieran Knowles’ brilliant 31 Hours being a case in point – here, the focus is on the stories of passengers who are very much alive, aside from one character, and even then it is unclear whether he was ‘One Under’, the term used by the Underground to describe a passenger under a train.
There is something inherently British about these stories, told by David Head: most have a touch of cynicism combined with generous doses of sarcasm, and the kind of wordy putdowns that are difficult to come by elsewhere in the world. Head is accompanied by Matt Glover on the guitar, who sang several ballad-esque tunes over the course of the evening. Some of these were thoughtful, others were profound – the antithesis, I suppose, of the sharp observant humour of the spoken word. What does it really mean, for instance, when one is asked not to stand too close to the edge?
The show had me almost at ‘hello’, so to speak, if only because I could relate to the events being described, up to a point. I’ve been, rather like the first character, Louise Merrygold, gone up from the Tube to the mainline concourse at Marylebone Station in a hurry, rushed to get to the ticket machines and then sprinted to get a train (I’m one of those people that sees shows out of town occasionally). But there the similarities end, because Louise is dashing for the last train of the night, apparently the 23:47.
Several other people are also gradually introduced, each with some connection to this train, on this night. The variety of stories was remarkable, even if one ponders in hindsight that there’s no reason why the individual backstories of passengers on any train, whether early morning, late evening or somewhere in between, wouldn’t be diverse and distinct from one another. The show was presented previously at the Edinburgh Fringe, and the relative serenity of this piece of theatre contrasts well with the hustle and bustle of the Fringe overall and the general busyness of the contemporary London that the show talks about.
To say much more about the narrative would be giving too much away, though this is a black box production, with no set or props to speak of, taking a stand-and-deliver approach. I rather liked the music not playing through the stories, demonstrative of the production’s confidence in the stories themselves to maintain the audience’s interest. This is good old-fashioned storytelling put front and centre of a show, combined with a sense of realism that senses when a story needs to hold back from becoming something sentimental or over-emotional.
Devoid of preachiness (a big plus), A Good Service achieves that rarity of going from the sublime to the ridiculous but also making the ridiculous sublime. A chain of events on a late-night train is considered from all sorts of different angles, including the especially inventive perspective of a mobile telephone left behind by its owner. The punchlines often provoked a positive reaction from the audience, and all things considered, this was a sparkling and speedy service that reached its destination safe and sound. Full marks for this spirited and whimsical journey.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The show revolves around a series of intertwining tales of dreamers, drunkards and lovers on a midnight train.
Basically, it’s funny stories and melancholy folk-pop. Everyone’s favourite combination.
A Good Service on All Other Lines on June 11th 2019
Rosemary Branch Theatre