Review: The Train (The Abbey Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10
For better or for worse, there is no better time for feminist theatre than now. Controversy can only work to the benefit of a piece of theatre promoting women’s rights in an age of Trump’s attack on planned parenting, the polarization of the internet community into feminists and anti-feminists, and, crucially, the call to “Repeal the Eighth” in Ireland, and thus legalize abortion. You can pretty much guess where I stand on all of those issues. I think that in dealing with them a production can show the complexity and difficulty to achieve equality, but nonetheless have an impact on a wide group of people and maybe, just maybe, cause change. So, in a world where a show about the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s could not be better suited for staging, how did we end up with a show like The Abbey Theatre’s “The Train”?
After all, a show about women traveling to Belfast and back carrying contraceptives condemned by both the court and the church is a story old enough to be interesting and recent enough to be original. Turn it into a catchy musical and you have yourself a formula for a top-notch show (and this from a person who avoids musicals like the plague). What’s more, director Lynne Parker and writer Arthur Riordan obviously have some creative ideas, for example, a plot line following average married couple Aoife (pronounced “eefa”) and Adam as they grow to accept and become part of the controversial movement. As you can imagine, this gives plenty of room for creationist imagery and social commentary. However, Parker has dealt with this whole production with an incredibly heavy hand, and the subtle possibilities of such imagery are squandered under a bright red apple emblazoned on Aoifa’s chest, nuns scowling overhead on scaffolding, and the biggest set of devil horns I have seen in my life.
That was not the only diversion of the production. Based on a collection of autobiographies, much of the show is just five women standing telling the audience how brave they are, each taking turns to say a line, and occasionally switching places, sitting down or changing outfits. Well, that’s what we were treated to when they weren’t singing. The structure of the show is actually pretty easy to replicate; seventies, late-Fleetwood-Mac-esque song, followed by inspiring filler, followed by a song, followed by inspiring filler, ad infinitum. Even I know that when a song is coming, the audience should feel it, and should blend with the story as far as possible. On this train though, every song is simultaneously bland, repeated and sticks out like a sore thumb against its narrative context.
That is not to say that the singing itself was not well done. The performances served their purpose and did their best with the material they were presented, and it looked like it was more fun to make than to watch. Lisa Lambe’s voice stood out, never missing a note and singing the bland melodies with an enjoyable softness. I fear, however, that that is where my praise ends. Her singing could not make up for the multitude of sins, one of which being the imagery that, from my knowledge, has received near endless praise by more forgiving critics.
The men were usually placed on ladders or high on scaffolding amid the occasional nun, just in case we’d forgotten who the bad guys were. The design was not even a train station, but rather a collection of scaffolding, industrial ladders (ever the fashion), and rather strangely a swing. This contrasted with the bright outfits of the women, and every so often a stage manager would come on stage to switch it up a bit. If it’s alright with you, I’ll put on my nerd hat for a moment; the production was quite clearly Brechtian, here meaning that it tried to make the idea of feminism and oppression strange and unfamiliar so as to give the audience a new perspective on it. It’s a good enough idea, such techniques have been used for years to portray political messages. What they forget is just because you use them, and show that you use them, does not mean they have the desired effect. It ends up being a confusing mess narratively and visually because of it.
That disappointed me but did not anger me. What angered me, increasingly the more minutes passed after I left the building, was the message. The actresses were all white, well-dressed, model-material women; each a seventies vision of the ideal woman, bar the revolutionary goals. You just need to look at the poster below to get an idea of what I’m talking about. It looks like these ladies are going shopping, instead of striving for change. The hypocrisy of using a representation that only adds to the problem of masculine expectations is helped along by their representation of men, adding the low feminine expectation of men. It almost felt embarrassing that a show promoting feminist ideals could spew male stereotypes so easily. Take Kate Gilmore’s song about using her sex appeal to gain power, intended to show that some of the ideas of gaining power from the seventies only added to the problem. What it instead does is describe how men could not control themselves around Gilmore’s generously sized chest, building on the stereotype men being little more than mindless sex fiends with power hidden in their back pocket.
That was the main problem of the production; its oversimplification of a massively difficult situation. It made the fight for women to have control over their bodies appear like the kind of debates that we have in our showers; ones where they are easy to win, make you look virtuous and your opposition look like an ass. I would go so far as to call it a sexist production for this extent, and after an evening of relentless and childish pro-women anti-men nonsense I must echo the words of the production’s priest; “I’m exhausted”. One star.