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FringeReview Scotland 2015

The Great Train Race

Firebrand Theatre in partnership with the Heart of Hawick

Genre: Theatre

Venue: Galashiels Interchange


Low Down

Two train companies, the North British and the Caledonian, are racing to be the quickest from London to Aberdeen. With tremendous high energy this panto style performance transports us on a 19th Century expose on how the train companies fought to be the fastest in the East. With three actors taking on all the roles, including the inanimate signal box this is a narrative exercise in storytelling with keen pace and quick changes.


Firebrand are increasingly a must see in the Borders and around Scotland. Here they have taken a well regarded play and performed it in the context of the latest railway openings in Scotland. With the reopening of the Borders railway it is apposite we are seeing a performance of another time when trains were great, performed in a venue which is part of the new infrastructure. It is a very impressive piece of planning and clearly a vote winner as the local crowd are willing to applaud and cheer each mention of local stations. Such planning though does not always a theatrical triumph make and it is its theatricality which must hold up.

The gusto with which each actor takes the stage and commands it is all you would hope for from this Christmas season. It is not a Stanislavkian feast, more a he’s behind you product. The script demands this and Ali Watt, Ellie Zeeger and Simon Donaldson are more than equal to the task. Switching from character to character whilst both Ali and Simon are our main protagonists is highly impressive as they take us on this theatrical journey.

The script, however, does have issues as it lacks the engagement that comes with natural narrative; it tells a tale devoid of a natural climax. The competition to be the fastest fizzled out towards the end as people became less concerned with the feat of getting to Aberdeen first and more interested in other 19th Century events. It leaves the script with a problem which it solves by giving a relentless pace. Richard Baron’s deft direction means that we are halted periodically, paused to help us catch up rather than end up in a railway siding out of breath. It does mean though that we are hearing a story which requires you to cast aside some of your normal belief systems and accept that relentless pace; I found myself struggling to do both.

It was performed in a room adapted as a theatre for the purpose of the performance. This is always a risk and I found the lighting too strong for the venue. The popularity of the piece meant we were also feeling very cramped. The set was great and between the audio work and props the production values were high. Unfortunately the conditions in which it was performed was not as conducive as a theatre must have been.

Overall the production had much to commend it and I have always been impressed by Firebrand. This time round I was more impressed by their choices of play and being aware of their place within the Borders. In a theatre this must have been impressive and must have worked so much better whilst I can see from the quality of the production that Firebrand are still to be admired, this was not the one on which they ought to be over harshly judged. They return in Spring 2016 with another apposite production – all about fighting for the West in the Middle East.