Two Trains Running – Oxford Playhouse

Taking on important issues of the time like gentrification, the poverty trap, and police tensions within the black community, Two Trains Running gives a picture of post-WW2 Pittsburgh and the aftermath of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Set in a restaurant, the play portrays members of the community discussing the challenges brought by poverty and racism in their daily lives. Owner Memphis is negotiating with the council who want to purchase the building, whilst the more senior members of the community try to guide Sterling, recently released from prison. Risa battles her relationships with men, and the group care for and support Hambone, who has learning disabilities. 

The script itself is difficult as there is little build-up or movement in the storyline. There was a sense that we were waiting for something dramatic to occur that never arrived. Rather than feeling satisfied, the audience left wanting more from the story than is given. 

Multiple elements of this particular production could have been more carefully thought through. With such important topics being discussed, little was done outside of the script to engage with the audience to get to the humanity of these issues. As a white British person watching the play, perhaps it is more difficult for me to understand the issues portrayed, however, this disparity was amplified by the actors’ failure to create a sense of engagement with the script. 

On the other hand, Derek Ezenagu as Hambone was excellent. Ezenagu portrayed a difficult role with sensitivity; his moments of character development were touching and well-articulated. The only moments I felt really connected to, and moved by the play were scenes involving this man. 

Michael Salami’s Sterling was also a highlight. The way that the character was developed gave the audience a sense of having achieved something by the end of the play, and Salami’s growing confidence could be felt as the play progressed. Although the play has been running for a few weeks in different theatres, there was still quite a lot of tripping over lines and jittery nerves from all of the actors which contributed to the lack of connection with the audience.

At just under three hours with little plot development, the play is simply too long. Looking at the audience, it was clear many were put off by the length, with a good few people leaving in the interval. By cutting some lines and reducing the times between scenes, a shorter version might be more captivating. 

Ultimately, while this play covers fascinating issues that still resonate today, this particular production more portrays the mundaneness of everyday lives than the excitement and trials of a politically turbulent time. It leaves much to be desired.


Guest reviewer: Nancy Newberry

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