“Runaway train never going back / Wrong way on a one way track…” – it was with this song that Ieuan Perkins’ ‘Proper Conduct’ ended in the BT studio tonight, and these two lines of the Soul Asylum song summed up this contribution to the New Writing Festival pretty well. ’Proper Conduct’ is set on a train that very soon starts to feel like a runaway train. After a woman commits suicide, the conductor informs three passengers of the protocol that he has to lock them in a carriage until they arrive at the next station due to the investigation. When a hypochondriac passenger, Quinten (Alex Rugman) complains that he needs to go to the loo but their toilet is ‘engaged’, the conductor (Mark Courcy) says that a fourth passenger, a mute deaf woman he had seen in the carriage earlier, could be in there. This seemingly harmless observation causes Quentin’s imagination to run wild, eventually infecting the other two passengers, the naïve twenty-something Robert (Hugh Tappin) and the initially disinterested Jennifer (Sophia Badman) with his hysteria.
At the heart of the play, directed by Julia Pilkington, is the idea that one person’s hysteria can become contagious and cause others to over-react. Quentin’s unfounded suspicion of the conductor makes Robert and Jennifer increasingly scared of him, the situation spiralling out of control and building to a violent climax. While this was an interesting premise to explore, I felt that the writer did not make the story plausible or simple enough for the audience. For example, the evidence Quinten finds to ‘indict’ the conductor did not make much sense – it obviously has to be far-fetched, but it simply became implausible and confusing. This was not helped by the fact that Mark Courcy’s portrayal of the conductor unfortunately fell flat, his performance being altogether too robotic – the play would have benefitted from a subtler depiction of this character to make the suspicions against him more believable.
Despite these flaws, there was plenty of promise in the play and the production: the set by Greta Sharp was minimalist in design but conducive to a realistic atmosphere, complimented well by Zoe Stockton’s background soundscape. The attention to the detail of the set – right down to the shabby train seats – was laudable. However, the play mostly thrived on Alex Rugman’s superb portrayal of Quentin. His physicality and delivery was outstanding, as he brought out Quentin’s annoying character traits while also making him the subject of comic relief, winning several laughs from the audience. Hugh Tappin also convinced as the naïve twenty-something Robert, and had great chemistry with Rugman, their banter very much being the highlight of the play. Jennifer (Sophia Badman) seems to be the voice of reason who then becomes the most hysteric in the end, and while Sophia Badman acts out her character’s initial annoyance well, the script currently does not illustrate well enough why she is suddenly convinced by Quentin’s fantasies. In fact, there are several subplots that are only mentioned briefly, like Robert’s traumatic experience on a previous train journey, which should have either been given more room or left out completely.
In sum, I feel this script would benefit from being extended into a longer play, giving the characters more time to develop and removing some unnecessary clutter. This would perhaps help put the train back on the right track.