E Nesbit’s The Railway Children is a lovely story of community, togetherness and unity, set against a backdrop of the dangers of prejudice and assumptions. Adapted for stage by Mike Kenny and directed by Damian Cruden, this interpretation is an exciting piece of theatre, complete with steam train rolling along the stage surrounded by the audience. From the opening choo choo, cry of “all abroad” and accompanying whistle, the world of the Railway Children is created in beautiful and immersive detail.
There is no fourth wall as an adult Bobbie (Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey), Peter (Izaak Cainer) and Phyllis (Beth Lilly) directly address the audience to tell their story. Bringing to the fore the issue of unreliable narrators, the three argue about their recollections of their childhood, but all eventually agree that the day when things began, they all felt safe and none of them realised how lucky they were.
On Peter’s tenth birthday, he has a lovely party with his family and their servants, where he receives a toy train. Expressing his wish to become an engineer, Bobbie too says she wants to work on the railway, but Peter tells her that girls can’t do that. Father (Rob Angell) tells her that in fact girls can be anything they want to be, before there is an ominous knock on the door that changes all of their lives forever.
What follows are a number of concurrent scenes, the overlapping dialogue and contrasting action quickly building a sense of dread until the very emotional moment when Father is sent away and the children are kept in the dark as to the reasons why or when they will be able to see him again. The servants are dismissed one by one, and the family, minus Father, go to begin their new life in The Three Chimneys, a cottage near a railway line in Yorkshire.
The train on the stage, complete with steam, railway line and vintage sound effects is magnificent. A beautiful little bridge reaching over each side of the stage creates a sense of atmosphere and allows the production to use height to create movement and a sense of space. Sound effects and lighting are also used to create echoes and the darkness of tunnels which really bring the world to life.
The landslide created with suitcases is a stroke of genius, creating a double meaning of Earth moving and the children’s previous life full of worldly possessions crumbling around them.
Lilly’s characterisation as the younger, and somewhat ditzy, child is excellent. Her comic timing is spot on and the sense of innocence and bewilderment she brings every time she inadvertently says the wrong thing is exceptional.
Cainer’s performance is very good as he strives to be the man of the house and take charge, while remaining a scared little boy who doesn’t know what to do as poverty quietly creeps up on them. Nicholson-Lailey is also brilliant as the stoic Bobbie who gives in to her emotions spectacularly when they become too much.
Martin Barrass’ portrayal of Mr Perks, a straight talking, brusque Yorkshireman is brilliant. Rob Angell’s performance as the Doctor also utilises this matter of fact personality, while maintaining an air of professionalism throughout.
James Weaver as Schepanski is excellent as he seamlessly goes between Russian and French, while creating a fully developed characterisation through exceptional facial expression and body language without using a word of English.
This is a wonderful show which breathes life into a forgotten world of steam trains and keeping up appearances. The themes of prejudice and poverty are starkly relevant to today’s world, and the community spirit employed by the characters as they come together in love and support is particularly poignant right now. The piece is also very funny, creating a whirlwind of emotions as you follow the children through one summer where so much happens, but in fact everything was really very ordinary.
The Railway Children is being streamed on YouTube until 23rd December 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6JS1RfMf4w
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 21st December 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★