The Train Driver - Review

A magnificent collection of sandy graves provide a gripping setting for horrific twists - in South African drama THE TRAIN DRIVER at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Nw3

THIS sparse and harrowing tale from South African playwright Athol Fugard grips the audience from start to finish – even if it at times makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Loosely based on a true story, it focuses on an Afrikaaner train driver who killed a black woman and the baby on her back when they stepped out in front of his locomotive.

In the play, a traumatised Roelf sets out to find the graves of his victims – who have never been identified – and ends up telling his story to black gravedigger Simon.

The magnificent set, a collection of sandy graves in front of Simon’s tumbledown shack, is detailed enough to transport you to a sharply divided South Africa, but understated enough so that you are never distracted from the story.

And the story, a tight 120-minute tale, is equally masterful. In it, Roelf moves from anger with the woman who has ruined his life, to sorrow that no-one loved her enough to name and bury her, and finally to acceptance of what has happened.

“I claim you,” he says, as he picks up a spade to bury a nameless black man – in a gesture that suggests that South Africa’s blacks and whites perhaps do not have to be so divided.

Most Read

But while Roelf’s soul-searching is gripping, what is even more interesting is the interplay between Roelf and Simon. The elderly gravedigger is at first angry with Roelf for intruding on his turf, then perplexed by his discomfort, and then finally accepts him as a kind of friend.

Roelf and Simon, played expressively by Sean Taylor and Owen Sejake, even end up swapping memories – although Roelf’s middle-class home is at sharp odds with Simon’s remembrances of a poor fishing village.

But just when you think there can be reconciliation for Roelf, for Simon, for South Africa, there is a horrific twist in the tale that makes you realise that progress in the country is still fragile – and that perhaps it would have been better for everyone if Roelf had stayed at home and kept his soul-searching to himself.