What do you do when your theatre is closed for nearly a year for a major refurb? Build another (temporary) one of course: the show must go on…! At least, that was the York Theatre Royal’s approach, constructing the Signal Box Theatre in a huge insulated marquee with a railway track down the middle at the back of the National Railway Museum. And if you are going to invite several hundred local people to take part, what better theme to explore than exactly how did York become a city shaped by the railway, a hub at the heart of the UK rail network and home of the National Railway Museum?
That’s how I came to spend several weeks in June 2015 singing among the steam trains in the Great Hall. “In Fog and Falling Snow” compared the life of the well-known engineer George Stephenson with the rise and fall of banker George Hudson, whose speculation in railway shares bankrupted many an unwary shareholder while also financing a rapid expansion in the rail network, with many of his lines starting or ending in York. Stephenson has a huge statue in the National Railway Museum where we performed the play, while Hudson has almost been forgotten (but for the concrete monstrosity which bears his name, Hudson House).
The best introduction I have read to the beginning of the railway era is Hunter Davies’ biography of George Stephenson, from starting out in the colliery working on machines, to learning to read and write as an adult so that he could gain knowledge from the books in the local mechanics institute. An early success was the safety lamp, but this was quickly mired in controversy: was it genuinely invented by two different people in the same year? Class prejudice had a strong role to play in Davy’s fame as inventer of the lamp, but Stephenson had very vocal supporters in the North due to his colliery-owning friends. He went on to develop not only steam engines such as the Locomotion and the Rocket but also the routes of the railway itself. I was fascinated to learn of his relationship with his son Robert, who was able to get the education which George had never had (George learned as much through reading over his son’s shoulder as from the lectures he attended in Newcastle).
Stephenson also played a major role in the rise of George Hudson (who gets a whole chapter dedicated to their friendship), by publicly buying his shares and acting as engineer for his new railway lines. In the play “In Fog”he acts as Hudson’s conscience, pointing out when he is starting to make serious mistakes. For Hudson, it all seemed to go wrong when Stephenson died, from the roaring success of the early 1840s to the crash in railway shares in 1849 with dodgy dealings and falsified accounts left, right and centre. Somehow though, we still loved George Costigan’s version Hudson for being larger than life, one of life’s true characters despite his many faults, even if his role in York’s railway heritage is now largely forgotten.
Next in the On Stage series: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.
What to Read Next:
- My series of posts on Treading Lightly inspired by singing in “In Fog and Falling Snow”.
- The BBC’s On Stage documentary about In Fog and the partnership between the theatre and the museum.
- The Guardian’s glowing review, which concluded it was the best play in the UK in 2015: high praise indeed!
- The Last Journey of William Huskisson by Simon Garfield: Huskisson is famous today primarily for being the first person to be killed by a train during the grand opening of the first intercity railway between Manchester and Liverpool. This book fills in the rest of the story – the man himself, how he helped get the railway built by supporting it through Parliament and what actually happened on that fateful day.