Paul Anderson, review of Playing With Trains by Stephen Poliakoff (RSC), Tribune, 8 December 1989
Stephen Poliakoff has a theory about why Britain is in such an economic mess: we’re good at inventing but bad at exploiting the commercial potential of our inventions.
This is a lament that has recurred in British politics since the end of the last century — since the beginning of Britain’s decline as an imperial power, in fact — but to see Playing With Trains you would think that Poliakoff was the first to think of it. The play’s didactic enthusiasm is at first refreshing but after a while becomes irritatingly unsubtle and repetitive.
The plot on which Poliakoff hangs his big idea is a simple one. Bill Galpin (Michael Pennington) is a single-minded engineer/inventor with two children (Lesley Sharp and Simon Russell Beale). We join them in 1967 as they prepare to move house after Bill has made a small fortune for inventing an automatic record player. From then on, it’s rise and fall. Bill first becomes still richer through his inventions, then makes a mark as an outspoken campaigner for industrial and political backing for innovators, then finally is ruined by an unwise libel action.
Bill is no one-dimensional hero, and the domestic angle of his story — progressive estrangement from his offspring as he becomes more and more obsessive provides welcome dramatic relief from his confrontations with bureaucrats and his pubic speeches.
But in the end none of this amounts to much.
Poliakoff dealt with the theme of obsessive genius overlooking domestic commitment far better in his previous play for the RSC, Breaking the Silence (which also had the bonus of an exotic Russian revolutionary setting). And Britain’s economic disaster simply doesn’t have quite as much to do with frustated innovators as Poliakoff believes.