All Aboard

Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts (Tomoskar Productions/Metro Arts)


Created, written and performed by Tom Greder

Professional production

If you’re looking for a Christmas show for all the family, from intellectually sophisticated parents to wide-eyed little train fanatics, Metro Arts has it for you in this surreal, baffling, childlike and utterly enchanting show by Swiss circus artist and clown Tom Greder.

It’s about trains, but not quite as you might think at first, when you’re shown to your seat by a buck-toothed conductor who mutters in a generic unintelligible mitteleurope accent while he decides whether you’re a first-class (paper doily on the back of the seat) or third-class (ordinary old uncomfortable Metro Arts seat) passenger. Like so many German train conductors I have known and not loved, he behaves like a mini-Hitler, gesturing towards where you have to sit, ordering you to sit still, and making you put your ticket in his strange wooden machine which often doesn’t let it go and then you’re in trouble.

It’s audience participation with a vengeance, as tickets are examined, rejected and destroyed, people are made to change seats, and raucous laughter (Nick Backstrom, you should be ashamed of yourself!) is firmly silenced.

Oskar Conductor has amiable characteristics, too, mostly in the pack of flip-cards he carries on his belt and shows to members of the audience. Somehow he wordlessly manages to make us give out a sympathetic “Aaah!” when he pulls out the laminated picture of his mother, and people were crowding to the aisle to see what other cards he had to show, and to make the appropriate noises. It’s just as well the Sue Benner Theatre is a small venue, for people right at the back and sitting close to the wall couldn’t really see the tiny cards, and were at the risk of being excluded, especially as this segment of the show went for a full 15 minutes. As a dedicated theatre wall-flower myself, I was getting quite frustrated, although my position did save me from being involved in the action.

But Tom Greder is a pro who knows just when an audience has had enough, so after he’d handed out various noise-making devices like a moo-cow gadget, a tiny bell, a couple of blow-up hooters and a bird-call contraption, he segued effortlessly into a sad passenger with a battered suitcase and a wrapped parcel, looking for all the world like a post-war refugee, so that the mood changed and we were in the world of Sartre, Kafka and even Beckett, where there is indeed no exit from this confusing situation. The buck teeth disappeared, the costume changed and the hat morphed into a skull cap, and many people were close to tears, for it was all too close to the existential despair that those writers portray so exquisitely.

But then Tom the Existential Wanderer begins to open his package, for it’s his birthday (we’re all cued up to sing to him, and we do), and inside the tatty box is a tiny electric engine, and four pieces of wooden track, two curved and two straight, but not enough to make a completed track.

More potential disappointment and despair but, never daunted, Our Tom created his own version of playing trains that at last brought into use those strange bangs and whistles distributed among the audience ten minutes earlier. On a table he set up a little village comprising a railway station (train whistle), some trees (bird whistle), cow in a field, a church (bell) and a little house where the fat mother-doll stood (Aaah!).

And for the next 15 minutes he had that little train chugging along the inadequate tracks, but by rapidly disconnecting one piece and adding it to the other end, he made the exercise into a perpetual race between his ability to detach and re-attach a piece of track, and the speed of the train. In between he played a harmonica, read a paper and consulted a miniscule dictionary, and when the tracks seem to take over their own arrangement and go off the end of the table, he simply added the last one in space and kept the whole thing going in the air. And he didn’t drop it once.

Quite apart from the brilliant circus-juggling skills involved in this balancing act, it had, for those who wanted it, a redemptive escape from existential doom-and-gloom, and proved the resilience of the human spirit.

A standing ovation, the first I’ve ever seen at Metro Arts, followed his retreat into the darkness, but it wasn’t over yet, and we were treated to more audience participation as the eight bells-and-whistles accomplices were dragged up front, and made to stand in a straight line and perform their own tricks with the train and the aerial train tracks.

Just as Tom Greder used no words to communicate this most joyous experience, so I have no words to convey the glory of it all. Go and see it yourself, and take the kids and, for once, make sure you sit near the front and in the aisle seats.

Director: Scott Witt

Designer: Jonathon Oxlade

Sound: Chrischi Webster

Lighting: Andrew Meadows

Playing until 1 December, Wednesday – Saturday at 7.30pm

Duration : about 75 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 14th November 2007)