REVIEW: Steaming fun from The Titfield Thunderbolt

New platform for comic fun at Court Theatre

A slice of English whimsy steamed into the Court Theatre last week when The Titfield Thunderbolt pulled into the sidings.

The famous Ealing comedy stoked up fond memories and made me quite nostalgic for that golden era in the 1950s when Britain bloomed in the rosy glow of post war prosperity.

The film, starring Stanley Holloway and John Gregson, typified the British bulldog spirit as a community pulled together to save their beloved branch line from closure.

But the story started out as a play, designed to be performed in village halls and it was first class fare to play three nights at the Tring venue.

The over-riding headache facing director Dan Clucas was how to get a full-size steam train into the intimate surroundings of the Court Theatre.

To say that it was left to the imagination of the audience was an under-statement, but watching the single carriage door scoot across the stage added to the merriment of the evening.

Clucas decided to demolish the fourth wall for the production and involve the audience in most of the drama. We became the members of a public inquiry, passengers on both a train and omnibus, and saviours of the day by passing down water containers that stopped the dear old express from blowing up.

The journey was jolly good fun from beginning to end. The Frayed Knot Theatre Company delivered a performance that never once went off the rails.

All the stereotypes of a good British drama were present. We had the lady of the manor in her sensible shoes, ruddy complexion and no-nonsense country clothes, the stuffy town hall clerk complete with bowler and brolly, the inebriated pub landlord, the buxom barmaid and her besotted boyfriend who was from the wrong side of the tracks, and the eccentric, train-loving vicar.

In-between there was the silent but omnipresent, station-master (a well-padded Debs Berry) who bustled around re-adjusting the set and blowing her whistle to launch a new scene.

The Titfield Thunderbolt told the story of how one village fought back, as only the Brits know how, by running their own little railway in the face of opposition from both the government and the local wide-boy Vernon Crump.

Colin Tovee gave a suitably oily performance as Crump making him a cross between Del Boy, Heartbeat's Greengrass and Minder's Arthur Daley. Here was a man always looking for the next best thing and wasn't prepared to let anything get in the way of a profit.

Together with his son Harry (an equally impressive Wayne McLaughlin) they conspired to ruin the best efforts of the people of Titfield and they made a great double act.

Lindsay Smith excelled as Lady Edna Chesterford giving the old dear an innocent charm that harked back to the grande dames of Britain's filmic heritage.

Heroes of the hour were old codger and some-time poacher Dan Taylor (Roger Emery) who was pressed into driving the train and the vicar Sam Weech (Steve Berry) who behaved like an obsessed train-spotter letting nothing get in his way to branching out into running a train service.

Berry made the most of his dotty vicar part and provided much of the humour as he could barely suppress his delight at getting a "real" train to drive.

There were cameos from the company's great seasoned performers like Margaret Sabatini as Mrs Bottomley, the mainly silent local lush, and Derek Rookley (so great in the recent production of Fawlty Towers), as lascivious civil servant Mr Ruddock (Rookley is a great comic actor and was shamefully under-used in this most genteel of comedies).

The trip aboard the Titfield Thunderbolt was just the ticket.