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Steaming On: The Railway Children

30 August 2017

The Railway Children

by Edith Nesbit, adapted for the stage by Dave Simpson

Exeter Northcott Theatre, at Richmond Theatre, 29th August to 3rd September

 Review by Suzanne Louise Frost

I do find people’s fascination with trains quite endearing.  There’s something sweetly old fashioned and nerdy about it.  We had a model toy train at home when we were children and would endlessly watch it whizzing around in circles, huffing and puffing when working its way up a hill, disappearing into tunnels, screeching to a hold at the station.  The most fun however for us children was when the poor little train would collide with something on the tracks, fall over, throw angry little blue sparks and give off a burnt stink ….  children can be cruel.

This production of The Railway Children at Richmond Theatre offers plenty of sweet old fashioned nostalgia mixed with a good amount of hilarious train malfunction.  Following Edith Nesbitt’s classic children’s story, it tells of siblings Roberta, Peter and Phyllis who are struggling with a change in their life’s circumstances.  The very well to do family is struck by tragedy when their father is taken away by some mysterious men.  Left to their own devices, their newly single mum can’t keep up the London house and the four of them are forced to move to a small cottage in Yorkshire, where their daily lives centre around the close-by railway station and the people they meet there.  Mr.  Perks, the station conductor, acts as a narrator and new scenes of plot are always introduced by setting the railway switch, a nice atmospheric detail.  All scenery and props on the beautifully decorated stage that is seeped in golden sepia tones are railway-themed, from the big family dining table with wheels to the bunk bed reminiscent of a railway wagon.

Coming from a different background, where The Railway Children does not form part of our collective childhood, the Englishness of the story is almost overwhelming to me.  The very posh Edwardian language these children use is a bit grinding and leads to a couple of unintentional howlers from the young audience, as in when a man with an broken leg lets out, not a scream of pain, but a very proper: “Jolly good, I shall be quite comfortable!” These children react to an invitation to an adventure with a heartfelt: “Oh I rather!”

Railway Children Screenshot

But even more English is the secrecy, the keeping up of appearances: keep calm and carry on.  Their father, it is hinted, has been imprisoned on suspicion of espionage, but the children are mollycoddled with a lie about a business trip.  When Roberta, the eldest does find out, they quickly agree to “never talk about it again”.  The mother is struggling to put food on the table but God forbid the neighbours would ever suspect they are poor.  When Perk the railway man is showered with presents for his birthday, he is furious at the idea of being perceived as needy.  All this stiff upper lip business is a bit exhausting, especially with the children played by adult actors.  Phyllis, the youngest, seems to be constantly furious about something “horrid” which might be cute in a young child but the poor actress is positively red in the face from being “cross” for two hours.  I wonder if this kind of over-acting is really needed just because it is a show for children.  I think we could trust our youngest audience members to follow a story without such exaggeration.  Some very welcome comic relief is therefore provided by the unlucky little model train that is supposed to cross the stage multiple times – and each time fails to get very far before falling over.  The only successful crossing of the train in the second act is accompanied by spontaneous applause and cheers from the audience.  The children seem to love it.  I would imagine the staging with its mix of scenery, props and video projections is perfect for modern day children as it gives quite a film-like aesthetic.  Tim Bird’s video designs are beautiful and beautifully integrated into the storyline.  This play is all about the goodness of people, the kindness of strangers, and the merits of helping each other.  It therefore sends a sweet nostalgic message out to young audiences today, who seemed to truly appreciate it.

 

Suzanne Frost

August 2017

 

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From → Drama, Reviews

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