In Fog and Falling Snow

The latest product of York Theatre Royal and The National Railway Museum’s seven year collaboration, In Fog and Falling Snow is a story not only of the forgotten Railway King of York, George Hudson, but also of the early nineteenth century as a whole. The subtitle of the play is “the untold story of York’s railway king,” yet In Fog and Falling Snow explores so much more than that. We are shown the untold stories of the working class – the train workers, their families, and the new, naive shareholders – and thus a glimpse into how life was for families before and during Hudson’s reign as Railway King.

This was just one example of the simple but captivating aesthetics, which of course would not be possible without the wonderful setting of the National Railway Museum

Arriving at the museum, we were guided into the grand hall and were immediately thrown into the early 1800s. We made our way around gossiping women in bonnets and aprons, children playing at their feet, and, of course, the huge trains that are there at every turn. We were no longer a theatre audience but spectators, ghosting our way through the streets of nineteenth century York. This departure from theatre norms was furthered by the format of the production itself. The first act consisted of six separate playlets, which the audience, split up into groups, was taken round in turn. Each playlet was a five minute snapshot of a nineteenth century life, ranging from a young boy purchasing his first shares in the railway to the laying off of a train driver, with no necessary connection between each one. While this could have made for a halting, disconnected experience, it was carried out beautifully with precision, as each group had two Victorian guides leading them around. My group was led by a rather upper class married couple, who would gossip, chat and joke any time there was a delay in the rotation, keeping us immersed in this changing and industrial world. This was further aided by other characters dotted around the museum, separate to the playlets but just as crucial in keeping the atmosphere authentic as we walked around.

Photography by John Saunders
Photography by John Saunders

The aesthetics of the production were fantastic; simple yet incredibly effective. This was evident at the very beginning, as we were introduced to George Stephenson (Ian Giles). He entered the grand hall astride the machine that made him famous: The Rocket. It was a truly spectacular sight, as the genuine steam engine rolled in from outside, with the evening light making a silhouette of both machine and man. It stopped in the middle of the audience, then began to spin round, slowly, on a turntable. All the while the sound of a live choir reverberated around the hall, as the audience were left in awe before any dialogue. It was an astonishing moment, breathtaking in its simplicity, and a picture that stayed in the mind long after the play ended. This was just one example of the simple but captivating aesthetics, which of course would not be possible without the wonderful setting of the National Railway Museum. The fact that each playlet is in front of, or in, a train constantly reminded us of what is at the centre of the play without having to explicitly refer to Hudson and the railway. We were also forced to use our imagination – piles of boxes had to be imagined as trains, and cones of paper as goblets – but far from being a flaw, it heightened the sense of the audience’s involvement. The first act was definitely more interactive than the second, with the audience even being directly addressed, and this really did give the whole production a very unique touch.

The plight of the young Jenkins was executed wonderfully, and the simplicity of the set highlighted how commanding her performance was

However, while the first act relied more heavily on humour – sexual innuendos, slapstick comedy and little asides to the audience – the second act became increasingly serious. A more traditional theatre manifested from there, in a theatre purpose built for this event, in which the actors themselves really began to shine. While the first five minute sections are entertaining, informative and engaging, they were unable to showcase the skills of individual actors, something only achieved by the extended performances. Arguably my favourite, the second act connected all of the playlets together, and thus formed a more complete picture for us as spectators. Regardless of this, the emotional turmoil triggered by the second act was incomparable to the first as I was moved from laughter to tears, over and over again. While George Hudson, played by the brilliant George Costigan, was the centrepiece of the performance, it was young George Jenkins (played jointly by Olivia Ledden and Charlotte Wood) who stole the show. The plight of the young Jenkins was executed wonderfully, and the simplicity of the set highlighted how commanding her performance was. As a character she was incredibly relatable, with the play briefly delving into some even deeper social issues. Helped by an impressive script, the raw emotion with which she held herself was truly breathtaking. Her final scene stuck in my mind long after I’d left the museum, and perfectly demonstrated how the untold stories of the working class people were just as central to the impact of the production as the untold story of the railway king.

Photography by James Drury
Photography by James Drury

The strengths of the production definitely lay more in the serious moments than the comical ones, although both are dependent on each other for delivering the complete experience. Despite a few moments that could perhaps have been cut from the script to preserve the freshness of the play, the final product was interactive and immersive, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. A hugely enjoyable piece of theatre that is unique in its setting and format, I almost wish that York Theatre Royal could reside in the National Railway Museum for much longer than it will, so to bring us more masterpieces like this one.

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