Playing with Trains by Stephen Poliakoff

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BBC Radio 4, 20-27 March 2010

Bill Galpin (Timothy Spall) apparently has it all; a successful career, a high-profile media personality, plenty of money and a happy family. However, as this chronicle of his life between 1967 and the mid-1980s reveals, this is nothing but a fašade. Narrated by his eldest daughter Roxanna (Zoe Tapper), this play focuses on the distinction between Galpin’s public and private lives. In public he likes to construct himself as the great entrepreneur, investing thousands and thousands of pounds in new schemes and new talent to advance the cause of science and technology. In one scene taking place at the Albert Hall, he harangues a group of top players for their inertia and/or reluctance to take risks, which he believes has contributed to Britain’s decline as an industrial power. Popular, well-liked, with plenty of girls to choose from; it seems Galpin can do no wrong.


However his private life is one huge mess. Poliakoff’s title says it all. Galpin likes ‘playing with trains,’ in other words, treating everyone and everything in the same way as toys in a gigantic game. Neither Roxanna nor his son Danny (Geoffrey Streatfeild) can enjoy independent lives; they must conform to his wishes. Destined for a promising career as an engineer, Roxanna rebels by dropping out of university and shacking up with an artist; Danny, on the other hand, largely accedes to his father’s wishes but receives scant thanks in return.


Eventually everything goes pear-shaped for Galpin; an over-zealous commitment to unworkable schemes deprives him of funds, and he is reduced to trying out new ideas in a seedy backstreet venue next to a club at the height of the Thatcher period in the mid-1980s. Roxanna confronts him with the truth about his life; try as he might, Bill cannot wriggle out of admitting responsibility for his faults as a father. The two are reconciled, albeit uneasily, as the play ends.


Playing with Trains has strong echoes of Death of a Salesman, as it focuses on how the male central character’s obsession with works renders him insensitive to his children’s needs. Bill Galpin might be financially more successful than Willy Loman, but his emotional growth is equally stunted. Poliakoff avoids the melodramatic ending of Miller’s play, but still doubts whether Bill has learned anything about his past experiences, despite losing all his money.


Peter Leslie Wild’s production offered two powerful central characterizations from Spall as Bill, whose soft, almost paternal tones in public contrasted starkly with his rages in private. Tapper’s Roxanna seemed perpetually scarred by her experiences – even her rebellion proved futile, as she divorced her first husband, found a second husband yet still could not discover emotional fulfillment. Like Biff Loman, she resembled a ship without a rudder. While the final confrontation between father and daughter went on a little too long (there are only a limited number of ways in which emotional souls can be exposed), Playing with Trains nonetheless offered a convincing condemnation of the kind of money-obsessed capitalism that reached its zenith during the Thatcher period.