Last night I went to the theatre. But I didn't go to a theatre; I went to a railway station.
I didn't catch a train, I caught some inspired theatre.
The railway station is in Lismore, northern NSW, where the last train departed in 2004.
I sat on the tracks – well, on comfortable seating erected over the railway tracks – and looked across the station platform and into the waiting room, a view you normally get from a train carriage. From this vantage, I experienced what theatre does best: tells a story.
When four people gather in the station waiting room to catch the bus that now meets the Sydney train at Grafton, their stories and lives become entwined with that of an old Italian woman (Katia Molino) who waits on the platform. She came to Lismore by train as a child bride from Italy. Now she's going home. To Italy. On the train.
"Good luck with that," one of the waiting passengers says.
Railway Wonderland took the audience from the 1940s to the present time and back as easily as a train between country towns. It took the audience on an emotional ride that had it laughing, clapping, and, sometimes, seriously silent. Yep, that's what theatre does.
Railway Wonderland is a homegrown production by Norpa, a theatre company which not only brings the works of some of Australia's best performing arts companies to the Northern Rivers, but creates local events like Railway Wonderland.
The play exposes Lismore's multicultural history and explores love, death, ageing, sexuality... you name it. And it does it with confident entertaining aplomb. The actors play multiple roles. They sing and dance. There is an excellent slapstick scene (with the actors mimicking the flickering movements of a Charlie Chaplin film) set in a hospital. Death shouldn't be funny, I suppose, but... it was hilarious.
The set is not realistic; it is real. Looking from the tracks, across the platform and right through the front and back windows of the waiting room, I could see not only the actors making clever use of the two performance spaces (platform and waiting room), but a street sweeper, yellow lights flashing, working the footpath across the street. A car blows its horn. Everyone is an extra in this show. This is not a play about a place; it's the play of a place.
If theatre tells a story, then Railway Wonderland is an eloquent storyteller. The dialogue is easy, not ponderous, the narrative burden shared with sharp choreography, songs (some with choir, all with a live band), physical comedy, and inspired direction that makes good use of the unusual setting's quirks.
Oh, what a ride. We laughed at the hospital slapstick, and then silently shared the pain of the old woman's loss as her dying husband danced down the line and into the night, she unable to follow. Sad, poetic – and bloody good theatre.
There's something whimsical about old railway stations.
There's something exciting about theatre outside a theatre.
There's something important about our stories of place.
Railway Wonderland – a great trip.
by Janis Balodis
Conceived and directed by Julian Louis
Venue: Railway Station, Union Street, Lismore
Dates: October 22 – November 7, 2015
Tickets: 1300 066 772 | www.norpa.org.au