Two Trains Running – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Writer: August Wilson

Director: Nancy Medina

Reviewer: James Garrington

Two Trains Running is part of American playwright August Wilson’s classic Pittsburgh Cycle, which records the lives of African American people over the course of the last century. Ten plays spread across the decades – and here we find ourselves in 1969.

The area is becoming increasingly run-down and as it does so the local funeral parlour owner gets richer on the back of the increased murder rate. For the diner though, the location for the play, the opposite is happening as customers are staying away, apart from a handful of regulars. The city wants to redevelop the area, the wrecking balls have moved in, but diner owner Memphis is determined that he’s not giving up his restaurant without fighting for the price he wants for it.

Despite the backdrop, this is a play with the theme of determination and hope running through it – even when the goal seems impossible. Memphis is not only resolute in his ambition to get every penny he wants from the city, he believes that he will one day recover the farm in Jackson that was taken from him.  – a fine performance here from Andrew French as the centrepiece of the story. He’s not alone though. Hambone wants a fair price for the work he did years ago – promised a ham he received a chicken – and his obsession has taken away his sanity. This is a beautifully pitched performance from Derek Ezenagu in a difficult role. There’s some good work too from Anita-Joy Uwajeh as waitress Risa who self-harms to make herself look less attractive to men, Michael Salami as ex-convict Sterling, Geoff Aymer as the funeral parlour owner West, Ray Emmet Brown as Wolf the numbers man and Leon Herbert as home-spun philosopher and voice of reason, Holloway.

The production has a realistic-looking fixed set of the diner, designed by Frankie Bradshaw, beautifully overshadowed by the wrecking ball hanging over proceedings like a Sword of Damocles.  There’s good attention to detail here, with a kitchen area visible behind the counter allowing for smoke from burning food and the background clatter of crockery and pans as Risa busies herself during the other action – in fact Uwajeh is on stage throughout practically the entire play. It’s all been put together as part of the Made in Northampton series, a co-production between the Royal & Derngate and English Touring Theatre opening in Northampton before a national tour.

One of the great joys of Wilson’s work is his language – this play is partly about a struggling community but more about the characters and their relationships – and that is where this production doesn’t hit the mark, and it spoils all the other good work that’s going on. Whether it’s the accents, the volume or the delivery, far too many of the lines don’t resonate to the extent that they should and it’s a pity because the original play contains a lot of powerful material. This is a difficulty for any production of course – when you know a piece so well you don’t always realise when things are getting lost – and hopefully, the issue can be resolved before the production goes on tour.

Runs Until 14 September 2019 and on tour  | Image: Manuel Harlan

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Needs some attention

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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