A hundred years ago the biggest killer of young men was war, now men kill themselves. Every 31 hours someone takes their own life on the railways in the UK rail network and it is ten times more likely to be a man. Kieran Knowles worked for a train operator and became increasingly angrier the more he kept hearing statistics like this, so much so that he wrote a play – 31 Hours – about the men whose job it is to clean up the messy aftermath of railway suicides.
Kieran grew up in Manchester and moved south to study drama at Loughborough University, where he took a Playwriting module, and then on to LAMDA. From there he was accepted on the Royal Court writing programme who nurtured his young talent.
I wanted to know why the writer chose suicide as a subject: ‘I think its despicable that mental health issues have been allowed to get to the point they are at now,’ starts a man who is obviously incensed about this topic. ‘The fact that the biggest killer of under 45 year old males is suicide isn’t just a problem with our society, it is a crisis!’
As well the story of four men in a job that most people would choose not to do, 31 Hours is also the stories of those that are driven to such a fatal solution. Kieran says, ’Yes it’s about people ending their life, but it’s also about the complexities that lead them to think suicide is their only option… I hope the play is about companionship and dependance too… about friendships and the inability to talk as well.
The writer did most of his research while working for the train operator. He begins, ‘I hated and loved the job in equal measure but it introduced me to some fascinating characters and most of the research which went on to form the basis for the play.’ An accommodating manager allowed Kieran space to ‘pursue whatever I wanted to within the parameters of the role’.
The men he researched had seen some pretty awful sights so I asked whether the interviews were difficult to do: ‘I interviewed by stealth. I would talk to people about it in general terms to try to get all angles relating to the issue, I wanted to give a global view of suicide on the railway, and the logistics involved in restoring a train service once someone decides to kill themselves. Obviously suicide is an incredibly difficult thing to talk about, and I feel it would have been a betrayal of trust to have interviewed people about their thoughts and feelings and then display that as a fictionalised story on stage, so the majority of the emotional journeys have been influenced by articles, videos and interviews already available in the public domain.’
Knowles hopes his play makes people more alert to others and what they may be going through. But he also understands that there is ‘a danger with plays that attempt to highlight an issue that they become so heavy and saturated with their own self importance they forget to tell a story or invoke emotions in the audience. I would describe the play as a dark comedy rather than an issues based play. It’s not just about suicide, it is about four men who are good at their job. It’s about public and private relationships. It’s about the environments we create and the problems they cause. I’m not denying the play touches on sensitive issues, but I think its important to view the play as a piece of theatre not a political rant – It’s a story.’
The World Premiere of 31 Hours is on at The Bunker, 53a Southwark Street, SE1 1RU from Tuesday 3 to Saturday 28 October. Times: Tuesday -Saturday at 7.30 pm; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3.00pm. Admission: £19.50, £15 concs. Phone: 020 7403 1139