Unplanned, I happen to be writing this review on a train. The woman sitting opposite me is staring down at her phone – her bags pointedly placed on the free chair beside her. In fact, most people in this carriage are also staring at their screens, myself included, choosing to sit single file as often as the seat availability allows. There’s little chance we’ll strike up a conversation (even as I type this she’s putting in headphones), but if we were on the Orient Express instead of the Gatwick Express? Now, that could be a different matter.
Dares to speak out against the world's default heterosexuality.
That’s the simple premise of Homophobia On The Orient Express: two strangers meet on a train. However, instead of swapping murders, they swap opinions. Uptight Caroline, hair pulled back into a tight bun and a tendency to cross herself when hearing the Lord’s name, is travelling alone, and asks the rather more casually dressed Edward if she can share his table. He agrees, and their chalk and cheese personalities couldn’t be more starkly drawn. This certainly isn’t a case of opposites attract, however, quite the contrary. Before long, Caroline has discovered that Edward is gay, a revelation which causes her to expose and then reassess the viscous toxicity of her homophobic views.
The power of this show is in the subjects it tackles: from homophobia and its root causes, to suicide, guilt, and the difficulties that the LGBTQIA+ community still face today. However, not all elements of the performance are as punchy as they need to be in order to deliver the desired impact. The two protagonists are performed with enough vigour to keep you entertained for the full hour, even if you’re not exactly kept at the edge of your seats, but both actors didn’t seem to fully relax into their roles. Perhaps it was the choice to keep them mostly confined to their seats that meant that their characters came across as a little stiff and overly mannered instead of impassioned – although perhaps Poirot would approve?
The set is simple, reflecting the straightforward premise of the play, but it would have been gratifying to have more elements of the famed glamour and luxury of the Orient Express incorporated to add to the atmosphere of perceived opulence. Few people regard the Orient Express as just another train journey: in fact, their own dress code forbids jeans and states that “you can never be overdressed!” whilst on board, so it’s unlikely that Edward would get away with wearing shorts. Perhaps these are mere details, but as Poirot would surely agree, details are surely the foundation of the bigger picture?
But not all details are overlooked: there’s a clever choice to keep the rumbling sound of the train running throughout. When it stopped, its absence was sharply noted, adding additional tension to the scene alongside the dramatic change in lighting. It’s also a thoughtful choice to keep the characters balanced: although no one in the room was siding with a homophobe, this isn’t just an opportunity to beat Caroline’s character with a stick. Although her views are never wrongly given a free pass or justification, her character holds her own, allowing her to show growth and complexity across the hour. It could have been easier to cast her as a villain, but giving her the opportunity of being a fully rounded character gave more weight to the messages of the play than a caricature would have done. You can also really feel Edward's pain at not only coming out once, but having to come out again and again every day in big and small ways.
The works of Agatha Christie (sorry, that should be Dame Agatha Christie) don’t really have the central prominence you might expect: they’re really a MacGuffin and mostly used just as an ice-breaker between the two characters. Christie’s most beloved characters, Miss Marple and Poirot, were notably outsiders, excluded or ignored by mainstream society – not to mention that hidden and assumed identities are literally the bread and butter of mystery stories. Perhaps there is untapped potential to draw parallels and more fully expand on this theme in order to widen the discussion of cultural portrayals of queernesses and what it means to be queer coded.
Homophobia On The Orient Express is a traditional play with a modern outlook, one that dares to speak out against the world's default heterosexuality. Engaging throughout, it is brave enough to walk away from gimmicks and lean into the power of a single persuasive conversation.