Do you remember the last time you were on a train delayed by a “passenger incident”? Can you recall what went through your mind — was it a shudder at the possible devastation hidden behind the euphemism? Or did you look at your watch and curse at being made late for work again? I’m ashamed to say I know which of these responses I’ve had in the past.
Now an extraordinary new play, entitled 31 Hours, about four men who clean up after rail suicides, is forcing its audiences to take a moment to think about the reality behind these often hidden tragedies. Filled with humour and humanity, it takes the audience on a journey through masculinity, mental health and messy aftermaths in modern Britain.
Here in an exclusive for insideMAN the play’s author, Kieran Knowles, explains what drove him to tackle this taboo subject. 31 Hours runs until October 28th at The Bunker, Southwark Street, London — scroll down to watch a YouTube clip from the play.
Every 31 Hours someone jumps in front of a train. For me that statistic started it all.
I was working for Southeastern railway at the time I stumbled across it, I was a maintenance manager, waiting for my acting career to take off, I’m still waiting, though no longer at a rail company. I was sat in a Management Safety Training seminar, and I was handed a Samaritans brochure with all of the statistics, figures and factsthat would inform the play and get me angry enough to write it.
For me the fact that the biggest killer of under 45 years old males is themselves is an indictment of the society we live in.If there was a virus causing that devastation we would be ploughing money into research and prevention. But its too easy to belittle mental health, it is too easy to ignore it, to assume it isn’t there.
The anger I felt at the suicide rate combined with working at a rail company, collided and I began to see incidents of suicide on the railway in a new way. The dehumanisation of a life is what drew me in, the public sacrifice and the logistics. When a human is hit by a train they instantly become dehumanised. Whether it is a tut from an angry passenger, a phone call to the engineers, an email to support teams and clean up teams that attend to make sure theservice can continue. One second you are human the next you are an inconvenience. All of your achievements and memories are replaced by a tinny announcement on a crowded platform speaker system. It was this element that caught my attention. So I started with that, and I came up with the idea that we would follow a network rail clean up team who attend incidents of this nature.
The first thing that this offers, and probably my favourite irony about the play is the uniform all rail staff must wear. High visibility coats, trousers, waistcoats, a hard hat, steel toe capped boots. All workers wear a uniform designed to keep them safe. But this plays into our general misunderstanding of Mental Health, we can’t wrap the part of your brain up that causes anxiety, grief, pain or worry we can’t dress it in reflective material. But until we deal with the issue in the same way we will never fully understand how to keep people safe. And if we don’t understand how to do that, then itseasier to ignore it, to stigmatize it, to pretend it doesn’t affect the people we love.
Literally everything about the outfit these workers wear is designed to protect them from the outside in, but nothing can help their struggles from the inside out.
I realise I have painted a fairly serious picture of the play here, and I know that no one really comes to the theatre to be lectured at, and so I hope I have created something that doesn’t.
The play actually, if you reduced to type is a workplace drama, it is about four everyday men in their workplace, their workplace though is perhaps a littleuntraditional. They do however, have a job to do and they have the banter, the gallows humour, the frictions between colleagues and the pressures from idiosyncratic maintenance managers (ahem).
I believe that in theatre it is important to laugh, to follow a story with a smile rather than constantly be bombarded with tragedy and so I have tried to marry the most serious of subjects with the most mundane everyday chit chat, and compliment them with other views of those involved in a clean up of this kind, in the hope that the elements harmonise to make the whole sound and look better and the message to ring out clearer. If you can enjoy a piece about mental health and suicide you are more likely to remember it. I hope.
To buy tickets for 31 Hours click here