Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Prototypes, Soho Theatre

Review: Prototypes, Soho Theatre

Written for Culture Wars, 21.04.2009

Few social groups receive such gentle stigmatization as railway enthusiasts. Stereotypically, they are white men in their fifties or sixties, often found perched at the end of platforms, clutching notebooks and thermoflasks. Accordingly, Robin Deacon – a young, black, male artist blessed with intelligence, good-looks and eloquence – makes for an improbable champion.

Part performance-lecture, part multimedia reconstruction, Prototypes is a pleasingly scatty homage to a hobby. Alongside his father, Deacon waxes lyrical on all things railway before (re)presenting his childhood trainspotting habits in miniature on a sparsely furnished model train set. The result is tinged with the nostalgia of an outdated educational video and proves a quietly fascinating mixture of fumbling, futility and self-portraiture.

Deacon begins with a short documentary film that owes much to Louis Theroux, interviewing the populace of oddities at a model railway convention. Tucked half-unseen behind a stack of model boxes, he narrates an accompanying lecture – almost an anthropological study of the species – offering theories of dominion and nostalgia. These miniature engingeers dispute the importance of practicality and design, the need for realism over the urge for expressionism and whether the most-appropriate scale is four or two millimetres to the foot. We, still stuck with our scepticism, cannot but chuckle over such quarrels between opposing factions of a divided community, underlined by Deacon’s pitch-perfect combination of highbrow analysis and small-scale triviality.

Prototypes’ triumph, then, is to turn us all into railway enthusiasts, which it does by blurring our affections for content and presentational mode. Such is Deacon’s enthusiasm and charm that his locomotive affections prove infectious. On two screens, each announced by a clumsy scale played on a xylophone, there alternately appears a live feed of a segment of rail track in Southend and its diminutive replica onstage. Each time a train rushes across, whether distantly real or crassly approximated, we flicker with excitement, such that, by Deacon’s final slideshow of unused trains stacked up, ungainly and rusting in a mass grave of machinery, we feel a genuine pang of sadness.

Though his attempted reconstruction of the 1990 timetable could use more commitment and clarity, Deacon’s charmingly homespun piece contains much to stoke the thoughts. Rigously reflective in its handling of reconstruction as form, it thrives on its self-contained futility. Surprisingly personal and warmly tender, Prototypes is a coy and blurry essay on man and machine that will almost drive you to unearth your thermos.

Photograph: Robin Deacon

2 Comments

  1. Gorgeous review. Wish I’d seen the show, now. Damn.

  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Patricia

    http://lioneltrains.info

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