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Playing With Trains

Financial Times, 30th November 1989, Michael Coveney

In his last stage play, ‘Breaking the Silence’, Stephen Poliakoff sketched a Russian Jewish émigré family on a train; the engineering father spent his spare time inventing lenses for the coming cinema age. The make or break wheeze of Bill Galpin, a Nottingham electrical engineer, is a network of road rail vehicles, little ‘snouters,’ which can perform like Land Rovers and beetle around Africa.

This paradigm of the dotty scientist whose inventions are despised in a society sceptical of technology bears an obvious relationship to Clive Sinclair and his doomed fleet of C5 personal vehicles. But Poliakoff elaborates the model to propose an epic drama involving a ruinous defence of a libel suit in the High Court, a running battle with two children in whom Galpin takes less interest than in his protégés, misfires property schemes, and an attack on the reluctance of big business to support the ideas wallahs.

Michael Pennington’s lean and self-obsessed boffin manipulates the media to promote his wares and, incidentally his wider views. Early success with an automatic turntable invention has led to other devices such as inter-connecting angle poise lamps and oven gloves with holes in. Galpin’s anguished point is that Britain lost the initiative with the jet engine, penicillin, the computer, even an early form of Lego.

Analogies proliferate in a stonewalling scene with a smooth investment executive (Ralph Fiennes). This place does not look like a nerve-centre of research and development says Pennington, eyes raking the dismal Pit. Invention is dying here because no-one will take the decisions. The outside world senses only internal shambles; but things will soon change for the better.

Ironically, Galpin’s arguments prompt an explanation in court of Rachmanism, taking us straight back to Peter Flannery’s ‘Singer’ in the Swan, the best play of the year in spite of all its imperfections, but one to which Poliakoff honourably relates. There are marvellous scenes here between father and children, both of whom drop science and engineering in favour of accountancy and art college. Lesley Sharp and Simon Russell Beale translate, at last, their striking resemblance to each other into sibling profitability.

Ron Daniels’ efficient production, moving across two decades punctuated with evocative pop music, keeps the dialogue bubbling and is good at charting the painful twists as Frances and Danny grow up and apart from their father. Smartly glib superficiality, and a relish of the material evidence of human pain in the environment, have long been Poliakoff trademarks. He provides new beautiful horrors in the sight of a bride surrounded by heat pumps and dwarf kidney machines to impress the prospective clients on her big day; and in Kit Surrey’s mountainous pile of discarded appliances and handy aids that have immunised Galpin, finally a Howard Hughes recluse, against the claims of the heart.

Pennington’s very fine, wolf-like, keep-fit performance also describes the tragedy of a man who cannot open his mouth without preaching a false gospel and sounding like a crazy quack.

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