On a Saturday in May, 1971, 47 members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement boarded a Belfast bound train at Connolly Station, Dublin. Their destination, however, was far from a geographical location; they were en route to making history. In an act of defiance against the symbiotic catholic church and Irish state, these trailblazing women journeyed north to procure the pill, condoms, and other contraceptives that were illegal in the Republic of Ireland at the time. They did this despite any legal or social repercussions they would face when they arrived back in Dublin and in doing so set the wheels in motion for an equality revolution.
The Train is a musical exploration of this momentous journey, with book and lyrics by Arthur Riordan and music by Bill Whelan. An ensemble cast perform two distinct but concurrent storylines; that of the “contraceptive train” and that of Adam and Aoife, a typical “modern” catholic couple of the time. Riordan’s lyrics set the pace from the get-go and paired with a variety of music genres from Whelan result in a solid modern musical that doesn’t shy away from hard hitting topics. While the subject matter may serious the wonderful manner in which it is delivered is not. The Train, while tackling issues from the past and present, offers an unexpected amount of humour and fun. Much of this comes from Adam (Louis Lovett) and Aoife (Clare Barrett) who, tragically, aren’t as heavily caricaturised as we might like to believe they are.
There are darker moments to The Train also. Particularly poignant is the acknowledgement through song of Ann Lovett, the 15 year old schoolgirl who died while giving birth at a Marian Grotto in Granard, Co. Longford, in 1984. Moments like this, where the human experience of a complex and faulty society is brought to the fore, are equally heart touching and enraging.
Director Lynne Parker manages to keep the ensemble cast in clear roles and both storylines run happily alongside each other. Parker’s direction brings the story, song, and performance together in a manner that gradually builds and ultimately incites the desire to riot among the audience. This is powerful to behold and an amazing experience to feel a part of.
Ciaran Bagnall’s almost brutalist metal set reflects not only the locomotive elements of the story but acts, at times, as a cage the women and Adam and Aoife. The set’s flexibility works well throughout the piece and its walkways offer veritable pulpits and benches from which the church and state can pontificate. Timely use of lighting balances out the toughness of the set and ranges from full on hellfire to angelic softness, resulting in a set that feels as though there is more to it than there actually is.
The past and the present merge well in The Train and it gives a sense of optimism for the future. It acknowledges our difficult history and demonstrates our weakness while also paying heed to the undeniable strength and passion it takes to turn the tide and generate change. Not only incredibly prescient from a social perspective, The Train is fun, entertaining and exciting. It makes something surge inside the audience and that, whatever it is, is what theatre is all about. The Train reminds us that while some of the battles may have been won the war is far from over.
Presented by Rough Magic Theatre Company The Train runs at The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 15 April and at The MAC, Belfast, from 19 – 23 April.
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes including a 20 minute interval.
Book and lyrics: Arthur Riordan
Music: Bill Whelan
Director: Lynne Parker
Music Director: Cathal Synnott
Costume Designer: Joan O’Clery
Set and Lighting Designer: Ciaran Bagnall
Sophie Jo Wasson
Photos: Ros Kavanagh