Review: 31 Hours at Bunker Theatre

Every 31 hours in the UK someone commits suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train. That someone is 10 times more likely to be a man than a woman. Kieran Knowles’ 31 Hours tells the story of four men working in the specialist cleaning branch of Network Rail, whose job it is to respond to ‘incidents’, to bag the remains, and scrub away the evidence. It could be any service job really - white van, high vis jackets, some heavy lifting - except that it’s not, and although the evidence can be washed away, each ‘incident’ leaves its mark. 

It’s an occupation few of us have ever imagined to exist. I’d never asked myself what happens in the aftermath of an instance of a ‘passenger on the tracks,’ though I’ve heard the service announcement more than once. I guess I’ve been too interested in my Kindle / newsfeed / whatever to give it much thought. Thinking about it - what the clean up entails, what they’ve seen and will have to see again - is not the problem for John (Adbul Salis), Ste (James Wallwork), Neil (Salvatore D’Aquilla), and Doug (Jack Sunderland). The problem is talking about it. 

As you might imagine, it’s not a play I ever expected to be a lol a minute. But for all the heavy subject matter, a surprising amount of 31 Hours is genuinely funny. Caricatures of callous passengers and clueless PRs, and naturalistic banter between the four workmates keeps up the pace. Their quips are a coping mechanism - for us as much as for them - and keep things human and real, but they also convey an inability in each of them to cut through the surface stuff and really talk to one another.

The cast is ridiculously strong. All four performances are moving and nuanced in their own ways, but Salvatore D’Aquilla in particular stands out (thanks in particular to a powerful monologue) as the new guy struggling to bear the weight of his obligation to ‘man up’ and get on with it. Each actor imbues their character with silent vulnerability and numb, plodding resignation to the task at hand, particularly relatable in their evasion of ever talking about work at home. How many men do we all know who keep work at work, brushing off questions about their day in favour of some peace and quiet? Too many.

It’s not all about them though. The story of the central four characters is littered with lightening-quick snapshots of all the other people affected by this kind of suicide: a lot is done in very short scenes to give space to the victims themselves, to the train drivers, the office workers, and to the passengers for whom an incident is nothing but a ‘#joke’. Excellent direction from Abigail Graham and sensitive, subtle performances interweave these vignettes so closely into the central narrative that all the important parallels between the (mostly male) suicide victims and the all male clean-up team are easily drawn. 

So go and see 31 Hours, and don’t be afraid of the heft of its subject matter. I can’t pretend to you that’s its not quietly shattering - it is - but it’s not macabre. Just enough time is spent on the gory reality of it all to make clear the strain on everyone involved, but 31 Hours is far more about the cause than it is consequence. It’s possible that I have, in the past, sighed in frustration at a delay due to ‘a passenger on the tracks’, but I won’t be doing that again. 

Catch 31 Hours at Bunker Theatre until October 28th.
Get tickets here

Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli