Last train to Scarborough: steam engine noir

Although obviously aimed at Scarborough locals, Last Train to Scarborough is still an enjoyable light-hearted take on film noir.

Put steam trains into any story and you’ll instantly conjure up images of romance and mystery. Everyone has their own story, from the driver to the passengers. But one career you’d not expect to get much of a look in is the railway investigator. Being a kind of predecessor to the British Transport Police, you’d think they’d be primarily concerned with boring things such as nabbing fare-dodgers and dealing with drunken football hooligans – but you’d be wrong! Apparently, railways inspectors are just the the private detectives in film noir, embroiled in all the mystery and intrigue you can imagine. This, at least, is the premise behind Last Train to Scarborough, the first in a series of books by Andrew Martin set on the York-Scarborough line, and now Chris Monks has adapted this first one into a stage version.

So, in this story, we have ex-fireman Jim Stringer who so obviously wants to be a train driver, but his ambitious wife has grander plans for him. He is on the case of Ray Blackburn, a fireman who disappeared after working – yes, you’ve guessed it – the last train to Scarborough and staying at the somewhat bizarre Paradise guest house with its alcoholic femme fatale proprietress Amanda Rickerby. (Thinks: all of the B&Bs I’ve been to in Scarborough were quite boring by comparison – where can I find one like that?).  Also present were her damaged brother Adam with a strange obsession with fatal train accidents, and two long-term residents who were former associates in a railways postcard business: cultured Howard Fielding who covers the fact he went to prison for bankruptcy, whilst sleazy Theo Vaughan moved into a different postcard business of exotic French pictures if you know what I mean. For a while I thought Theo killed Jim as a threat to his business, after Jim had explained this great invention he’d got called “the internet” – but I was on the wrong track.

This play easily sold out over its two-week run, but that alone does not guarantee the play is any good. As I’ve said before and I’ll say again (and again and again and again) it’s normally possible to fill up a regional theatre showing with any old rubbish as long as it shoehorns in references to local landmarks. Luckily, Chris Monks sets his sights higher than that, and applies his touches we’ve seen in many of his previous productions to produce a slick well-choreographed production. The cast of five plays a multitude of different characters going through costumes at an unbelievable rate, and innovative staging at the SJT’s best.

It is fair to say that in spite of Chris Monks’s efforts to appeal as widely as possible, it is still very much a play for a Scarborough audience. There’s only so far you can take this seriously when you combine film noir with steam trains. It might have helped if the final quarter of the play had been better managed; there was a somewhat abrupt transition between pondering who dunnit and the killer suddenly confessing why he did it, and I’m not exactly sure why Amanda Rickerby’s other brother was outside with his boat waiting to kidnap Jim Stringer. Something, I feel, was lost from the adaptation there that could have done with saving.

But it’s still an enjoyable production to watch for locals and visitors alike. The play has been an unprecedented success for Scarborough – I suspect that even the SJT underestimated this play’s popularity by giving this a short run. So will we be seeing any more of Jim Stringer’s adventures on stage? I suspect we will. I doubt we’ll hear much of this outside North Yorkshire, but we could be hearing a lot more of it in Scarborough.

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