In the heart of the West End, but very much a ‘fringe’ theatre, the Tristan Bates Theatre is playing host to From Page to Stage, a season of new musical theatre featuring work in progress as well as newly completed works. The headline piece, and the one with the longest run, is The Stationmaster. Set in a small town in the Lake District in 1958, the musical is by no means the light-hearted fare that tempts theatre-goers to Kinky Boots or The Play That Goes Wrong, although there is plenty of humour to be wrung from characters such as the snobbish and high-handed lady mayor. The central character is, on the contrary, caught on the horns of a moral dilemma. The stationmaster of small station that has not yet felt the effect of Dr Beeching’s axe, he takes pride in his efficiency and comfort in his routine, until his world is turned upside-down by a romantic entanglement outside his marriage. There are tragic consequences, and he must wrestle with his guilt.
The excellent cast create the ambience of Britain in the 1950s, when rationing had just finished and sex had not been officially invented (this happened apparently in 1963), and locomotives were stilled powered by steam. There are a few anachronisms in the dialogue, such as getting something “sorted” instead of “sorted out”, while the actor who plays a police sergeant sports a beard – something a policeman at that time would not have been allowed to grow. But we genuinely feel ourselves to be back in a bygone age (that of my own childhood), and in the limited space available the minimalist sets and authentic costumes persuade us that we are at a station when the train comes in, or at a fête where a prize is to be awarded for the best cake (not here described as a ‘bake off’), or in the cell where a prisoner is awaiting trial.
Small-town prejudice and the guilt suffered by an essentially good man who tries to conceal something shameful being the themes of this musical, the songs are not show-stoppers, but carry the story along to what we expect to be a sad end. With excellent accompaniment on the piano, the cast show themselves to be good singers as well as actors, and were much appreciated by an attentive audience. That the auditorium, small though it is, was packed out on a Wednesday night is a tribute to the rightness of putting on a season of new musical works – even works which demand more attention from the audience than the mainstream musicals which have become the financial mainstay of the West End.