It can take just three hours from the point of impact to service being resumed, depending on the severity of the casualty. The team come in and clean up with efficiency and professionalism – make safe and wipe clean, as if nothing has ever happened. All we hear about though are the complaints from angry commuters; the delayed journeys that occur when someone commits suicide on the railways. It happens every 31 Hours on average. Yet Kieran Knowles’ insightful show focusses not on those who moan about the loss of life, but on those whose job it is to clean it up, remove all trace and get the railways up and running again. A thankless job indeed, but one that is aptly paid homage to in Abigail Graham’s brutally honest and heartfelt production.
This story is a group effort, each cast member contributing to a whole narrative that is greater than their individual stories alone. From newbie Neil (Salvatore D’Aquilla) to grumpy Doug (Jack Sunderland), each of Knowles’ characters have a distinct set of motivations for taking on such a thankless job. The atmosphere is most electric when the ensemble come together, bickering and arguing over directions, or joking and laughing in the middle of such macabre events, or playing detective to try and piece together the life lost. 31 Hours begins as a seemingly fragmented piece, but Graham’s intention here is to keep the audience on guard and off kilter, a natural rhythm that emerges when cleaning up after such tragedy. The quartet pause, take a breath, acknowledge the loss and then get to work in an efficient set of repetitive transactions.
31 Hours is more than a descriptive day in the life though; it subtly highlights the inability for some people to cope with daily pressures. Graham underplays the male mental health angle somewhat – there is much more potential for this production to highlight the stigma that men must always be strong, lack emotion and behave as if unaffected. Breaking down or crying is weakness and cannot be tolerated. The monologues highlight the chinks in the armour most effectively; we get a sense that each man is under tremendous strain from one part of life or another and begin to empathise with them as people. Ste (James Wallwork) is a divorced father, seeing his son at sporadic intervals; Neil (D’Aquilla) is a new father with financial constraints. Each man tries to put on a mask, a façade that everything is fine. But underneath each are slowly buckling and warping from the task of washing clean any evidence that remains of a human being.
31 Hours flits back and forth between the main four and a number of ancillary characters with harrowing results, as if each actor is re-enacting the stories of the ones they have to wipe away. It might be the trauma of a child that falls onto the tracks, or it might be the touching tale of Beryl (Abdul Salis) and Colin (Sutherland), 52 years married before going broke in their retirement and ending it as a couple, bodies side by side on the tracks. Each story is emotional because it’s told with humanity – blood and soul and memories rather than statistics or delays or casualties. Every cast member is relatable because they tap into the complex emotions within themselves.
It’s impossible not to be affected by Graham’s vision – she puts people at the heart of the story. The next clean-up will be equally distressing, inevitably leading to the realisation that it may be one of the domestic crew themselves who buckles under the strain. Knowles and Graham generate tension, pathos and humour in a distressing subject. But they also highlight the need to talk, the need to share problems and admit when you’re not coping. It’s ok to not be ok all the time.
As 31 Hours concludes, we are left with the sad realisation that some people aren’t capable of opening up, opting instead to give up. Suicide can be seen as selfish, an annoyance in everyone else’s daily life. But it’s a cry for help in itself, an admission that sometimes life is just too damn hard. This production brings to light the need to be supportive and understanding, with a cast that emotionally connect with the audience because they understand the simple difficulty of coping from day to day.
Director: Abigail Graham
Producer: Annabel Williamson for W14 Productions
Writer: Kieran Knowles
Design: Andrew D Edwards; Sally Ferguson (lighting); Adrienne Quartly (sound)
Cast: Abdul Salis; James Wallwork; Salvatore D’Aquilla; Jack Sunderland
Images courtesy of Lidia Crisafulli
31 Hours plays at The Bunker until 28 October 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.