Three trains, three passengers, three separate decades. First Class – an impressive piece of small-scale theatre – follows the stories of a single mother from the 50’s, a teacher from the 90’s and a world-class tennis player of the present day, as they make their separate journeys into Manchester Piccadilly station. Through a series of inner monologues, we learn that despite the years that separate them, they’re united in secret unhappiness and mental unease.
This is theatre at its simplest: crammed into a tiny improvised stage in the Espionage nightclub, with three chairs for a set and a football shirt for a costume change. But the script’s well-matched to the constraints of the space, and the bare-bones production throws focus on the youngish actors, who all prove thoroughly worthy of the spotlight. Joe Walsh is a bundle of nervy physicality, while Maddie Haynes captures a poignant emotional emptiness and Erin Elkin reflects the despair of a mother unable to care for her child. All three actors fully inhabit their characters, occasionally supporting each other’s stories by switching to cameo roles.
The script ventures into some dark psychological territory, and traverses this difficult ground with both delicacy and confidence. One passenger seems destined for a nervous breakdown, while another is haunted by the “black dog” of depression; these very different illnesses are each approached with empathy and compassion. At times it feels a little unbalanced – Walsh’s stressed-out teacher tends to overwhelm the quieter figures – but you’ll end up with an understanding and affinity for all the characters, and genuine concern about exactly how their journey is destined to end.
Unfortunately though, it’s just a little too hard to follow what’s going on. Playwright James Beagon makes extensive use of interleaved monologues, presumably with the aim of drawing out parallels between the characters’ separate tales. That’s an elegant device, but it’s inherently demanding of its audience, and it grows confusing when it’s used as extensively as it is here. It also means the three stories reach their highly-emotional conclusions at exactly the same time – an experience which is more overwhelming than it is dramatic.
And there’s another thing which feels slightly over-egged: each of the characters is struggling with present-day life, but each has a secret in their past as well. Rachel the tennis player, for example, is under pressure to perform, a circumstance that’s easy to connect with and which stands up perfectly well on its own. So when we learn about the slightly-outlandish event which has left her in this state, I found it distanced me from her story rather than drawing me further in.
Beagon is a young playwright, and I urge him to have more confidence in the strength of his writing; he doesn’t need to shore up his dialogue with an excess of drama in the plot. But First Class is well worth your attention, especially since it’s free theatre in a handy lunchtime slot, and it’s a fine showcase for three clearly-talented young actors under the direction of a promising writer. See them now – and watch out for them in the future too.