Jessica Wilson: The Passenger

Oh, the passenger / He rides and he rides / He sees things from under glass / He looks through his window’s eye / He sees the things he knows are his / He sees the bright and hollow sky…

Today I am The Passenger. And I ride, and I ride: train, train, tube, DLR, DLR – and with just 1 minute to spare, I arrive at Beckton Park station, and luckily Bus Stop X is just outside. Phew, made it!

So, I board the bus, and as most seats are already taken, try to sit down next to a middle-aged man in a grey suit. Then I notice he’s wearing a radio mic headset. Oh, right – a performer, then…

I sit a few seats back, and watch the back of his head. No ‘emerging from the audience’ scenario in this show, then – the mic flags him up as ‘not one of us’. Now the bus driver has the engine is running. At the last minute, a woman gets on – tousled blonde hair, jeans. She sits down, takes off her sweatshirt. Bare-armed, casual – in contrast to the suited and booted man she’s sitting next to.

And we’re off. The man takes a call on his mobile. He’s talking to someone called Patrick, about the Tesco sales and saving 2p on a litre. (Of what? surely not milk – his suit looks expensive and there can’t be much money in dairy, can there?) So we gather that he’s a salesman, or buyer, or something… a business man. There are more calls: a conversation about after-school childcare, then Patrick again. The woman starts a conversation: Is Patrick your boss? Was that your son? She apologises for prying. He replies, a bit cautiously at first. Yes, and yes. He’s separated from the boy’s mother. His boss dumps a lot on him. She talks about her day – a frustrating meeting with a bank manager about a loan, and then trying to get through to someone important on the phone, to resolve a complaint. You have to find out who the person you need to speak to is, he says. Get past the minions, get directly to that man. And never lose your temper, that’s crucial.

We listen in to all this, wondering where it’s going. Now the conversation has stopped. Music is playing (an upbeat road-movie soundtrack – composer Tom Fitzgerald knows his stuff, his music referencing key movie genres throughout the show).

Meanwhile, where are we going? We ride and we ride ‘through the city’s backside’. Well, what would have been the city’s backside once upon a time – an area now in a state of flux. Redevelopment is everywhere. Dockland Light Railway stations with metal-and-glass walkways and giant robot legs; the insect-like O2 Dome; planes from nearby City Airport coming so low they are almost on top of us. A graffiti daubed brick building sits alone on a piece of wasteland, bearing the sign-written legend: George’s Diner. A Majestic Wine warehouse. Brand new toy-building-block self-storage units all along the riverside. We move further into the city. Interesting juxtapositions: Launderettes and beauty therapists. Sleek sushi bars and greasy spoons. Novotel versus Top Night Hotel.

As we get close to Canary Wharf, the man is speaking again. This area was a wasteland 20 or 30 years ago, he says. Now look at it. Gleaming towers. Foreign investment. Bankers’ crash pads. He offers the woman advice on buying property. Borrow money to make money. Buy to let. Put your assets in to debt and make them work for you. The woman tries to say that she’s not in any position to buy anything, but he’s not having any of it: be braver, take risks.

Another musical interlude. A different mood, a little more edgy. We reverse out. The city moves past us, a panoramic display. I play a typical passenger game with myself: spotting red things. Ladbrokes, request bus stops, the Tesco sign, a Vodaphone ad, Ibis hotel sign, the red cladding on a high rise block. The man and the woman are talking again – about dodgy characters, homelessness and murders in the capital.

We’ve stopped for no apparent reason. Looking through the bus windows, we see a man in a brown fringed jacket, hat and cowboy boots – sitting, watching. Have we seen him before? He looks familiar. These sort of shows always invite musings on the performativity of everyday life. Is he a plant? Or just part of the East London landscape?

The conversation inside the bus has started up again. They’re talking about films with revenge plots, and she moves the conversation on to Clint Eastwood’s revisionist Western, Unforgiven. How many cows is a woman worth, she wonders. And then, as we draw into wasteland close to the airport, everything shifts… Cue mounting tension music, with a touch of Ennio Morricone in there somewhere.

The Passenger conceived and directed by Jessica Wilson and Ian Pidd, with a script by Nicola Gunn and ‘local dramaturgy’ by Tassos Stephens – cleverly works a plot trope beloved of thriller auteurs, from Agatha Christie to Alfred Hitchcock and beyond – that of total strangers, supposedly meeting randomly, who turn out to have a crucial connection, and to have been engineered together.

The cowboy motif is relevant to this connection between our two strangers, and it is worked into the piece with skill and humour. It’s a slow build and, despite the well written dialogue and strong acting, there are moments when you can’t help but wonder how the dramatic conflict is going to manifest, and then (when, at last, it emerges), what the resolution might be. But rest assured, Wilson and team know what they’re doing – the denouement makes sense of all that has gone before, and the Deus ex Machina resolution is stunning, turning our live movie into something magnificently surreal and gloriously cinematic.

I do, though, wonder why Mr Grey Suit is riding on a public bus – I mean, would he? Is it a public bus? Or are we all delegates on a works outing? But never mind, let’s put that aside… the bus is the bus – a device.

The Passenger is a tightly written and brilliantly executed piece that turns the London landscape into a thriller movie, framing the city so that we see it with the eye of a cinematographer. Its central premise – that the underdog can take on Mr Big and win, even if that means resorting to unusual methods – is one particularly appealing at a time in which capitalism is running rampant, making a mockery of notions of fairness in ‘free enterprise’.

Revenge is indeed sweet.

Lyrics from Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, composed by James Newell Osterberg and Ricky Gardiner.

Greenwich + Dockland International Festival (GDIF) runs 21 June to 6 July 2019. See 

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.