Victims of the Tay Bridge disaster are to be honoured in a new play

Boats tossed on stormy sea. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Boats tossed on stormy sea. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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The victims of the Tay Bridge disaster are to be honoured in a new play set on the night of the tragedy and based on the lives of some of the passengers who fell to their death.

Dundee Rep is working with one of Scotland’s leading playwrights to create the production, which will be staged as part of the theatre’s 80th anniversary programme.

The play by Peter Arnott, whose previous work includes plays on the Scottish boxing hero Benny Lynch and American rock singer Janis Joplin, is being billed as “a heartfelt and moving portrait of an era, and of a group of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

He has drawn on official accounts of the disaster and archive records on possessions which were recovered from the River Tay to create the semi-fictionalised story and characters.

Tay Bridge, the play paying tribute to those who lost their lives in the train tragedy, is to be staged a few months before the 140th anniversary of the disaster, which happened on 28 December 1879.

The rail bridge, the longest in the world at the time, had been completed less than two years previously. Its central section collapsed during a violent storm as a six-carriage train heading from Wormit in Fife to Dundee headed across the bridge, claiming the lives of all 59 passengers on board. Official memorials to the victims were only put in place on either side of the Tay in 2013 after a long campaign.

Dundee Rep says the play, which will run from 27 August to 21 September, will focus on “the poignant and unexpected stories of the suddenly-interrupted passengers making the journey that night”.

Tay Bridge is part of an 80th anniversary programme that also marks 20 years since the creation of Dundee Rep’s own permanent ensemble of actors. It has also unveiled plans to create new musical based on the Oor Wullie comic strips and a play based on the life of Dundee United manager Jim McLean.

Artistic director Andrew Panton said: “I really wanted this season to have stories that really resonate with Dundee, but also have scope to travel elsewhere.

“Tay Bridge is not about the disaster per se, but it is set that night, and it is based on the people who were on that train, and official research and documentation on them.

“We’re definitely not putting a disaster movie on stage. The disaster is really a framing device for the play.

“It will piece together characters, where they may have been going and how their lives might have progressed had the disaster not happened.

“The audience will obviously know what the end point is going to be, but it’s really about the individual characters that the gradually find out about and how their lives intertwine.”

Peter Arnott, who said the original idea for the play had come from the actor Tom McGovern, told The Scotsman: “My job was to marry what we little know about the victims, the people who happened to be on the train, with the specific attributes of the members of the ensemble who are going to be in the show.

“What is interesting is that almost from the moment the disaster happened, stories about those who perished began to circulate. Church of Scotland ministers actually denounced the dead from the pulpit the next Sunday – for working and travelling on the Sabbath.

“The single most poignant source for the play was the Tay Valley Family History Society, which published a list of the lost and is probably their best memorial, including where they were found, and what was in their pockets.

“It’s amazingly affecting. They were people like us who just happened to be on a train that Sunday.”