Having watched a radically different approach to a children’s classic which was turned into an iconic film the day before (The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz), I wondered how another from the same period might have fared. The Railway Children found fame through the gentle 1970s film which even then looked a long way back to Edwardian England and is now being shown as a staged production (very briefly it has to be said) by The Shows Must Go On. Whereas Oz was all about reimaginings and irreverent updating, this production could hardly have been more reverential to the spirit and letter of the original – and that includes the steam train.
The Waterbury family suddenly fall on hard times when the father mysteriously becomes absent. And so, mother and the three children go to live in a genteel sort of poverty in a remote village in Yorkshire (oh, the horror!) where they do some serious growing up and the height of excitement is to wave at the passing trains. One day an old gentleman passenger waves back and so begin a series of adventures which involve suspected espionage, theft, an encounter with a Russian dissident, burgeoning teenage passion, trespassing*, family arguments, mental anguish and removing their underwear in public. Of course, if you already know the book/film you’ll instantly realise that there’s a bit of spin going on here, but I can’t help thinking that’s how the product might have been marketed in these less salubrious times. Instead, the entire thing is a wholesome as expected.
The structure of the narrative is far more episodic than I had remembered but adapter Mike Kenny (from Edith Nesbit’s original) has remained true to his source which is the play’s strength as well as its weakness. For instance, other than to demonstrate the innate kindness of the protagonists I’m not sure what the subplot about the émigré Russian brings to the mix. However, for the devotee everything is there but, to me anyway, the real interest lay in how director Damian Crudden and his team managed to stage the production rather than the storyline. And there’s no doubt that it is cleverly staged…or possibly that should be platformed. I suppose it falls into the realms of being site specific being mounted by York Theatre Royal in the National Railway Museum (in London it was performed at both Waterloo and Kings Cross) with the audience seated in a traverse configuration with the railway tracks between them. The most famous scene is probably where the children stop the train by flagging it down after a landslip. This is the big moment in the production where an actual train puts in an appearance – a Stirling Single, 39-tonne steam locomotive built in 1878 for the gricers among us (train spotters to you and me). In truth it’s not as dramatic as that suggests, especially on a screen. I guess for younger members of an audience who have never seen a steam train in action there’s a certain wow factor, especially as it would be accompanied by noise and smells, but on video it’s all a bit of a non-event.
The children are played by adult actors who effectively manage to suggest their different personalities – sensible, on the cusp of womanhood Bobbie (Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey), scattily inquisitive Phyllis (Beth Lilly) and precocious Peter (Izaak Cainer). The rest of the cast give natural unmannered performances with a highlight being the Stationmaster Perks of Martin Barrass who banishes all thoughts of Bernard Cribbins in the role and makes a rather more 3D character of him than I recall. What mostly sticks in the mind, though, is Joanna Scotcher’s superb design elements. Quite apart from the spot- on Edwardian costumes there is inventive use made of the rigidly configured space. Moveable rostra above the tracks are shunted into position for the domestic scenes and removed to reveal the railway lines when the location shifts to the station and environs. There’s also a bridge across the tracks which adds to the possibilities and in one well thought out sequence, opaque curtaining is used to give the effect of being in a tunnel.
Ultimately the production is as safe and as cosy as the Sunday teatime serials which older readers will recall (and indeed where The Railway Children was once serialised); and that’s not a criticism, just an observation. It’s a gentle evocation of a bygone era with, at its centre, a heart-warming message about family and helping our fellow human beings and, at a time such as this, what could be more relevant?
*As a piece of trivia you might be interested to know that the film version received criticism for encouraging children to play on railway lines!
The Railway Children can be accessed via The Shows Must Go On You Tube channel (but only for another day and a half) – click here. After that it can be rented via Amazon – click here
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