This Exeter Northcott and Nick Brooke production of The Railway Children directed by Paul Jepson, might not have the advantages of being staged inside Waterloo or King’s Cross station, complete with a live vintage steam train to wow audiences, but nor does the story suffer as a result of those distractions. Designed to be easily transferable to many UK theatres, it also means that a much larger audience are likely to discovery this version of the classic.
Thanks to a skillful adaptation of E. Nesbit’s most beloved book by Dave Simpson the plot proceeds at an exciting pace that will keep the little ones entertained, while a wonderfully nostalgic set design by Timothy Bird incorporates white picket fences and captivating projections of trains, stations and landscapes, adding just the right amount of atmosphere and interest over countless scene changes. The sound design by Ben Harrison captures the thrill of train travel, then in its heyday, while of course smoke machines billow out in order to recreate the magic of steam locomotives.
Today’s young will surely be bemused on considering the life of middle class children just over a hundred years ago, from the plummy accents to the breeches and long socks of brother Peter (Vinay Lad) and his petticoat wearing sisters, Roberta (Millie Turner) and Phyllis (Katherine Carlton), it’s a wonderfully sentimental exploration of Edwardian childhood. Millie Turner shines as “Bobby” the character that made Jenny Agutter a household name on the release of the 1970 film version, while Turner’s fellow young cast members put in equally faultless and word-perfect performances.
On the three children removing with their mother (Joy Brook) from their comfortable life in London to the Three Chimneys Cottage in Yorkshire when their father is mysteriously called away, they are told nothing except that they are now poor and must live according to their straightened means. Naturally this change of environment is thrilling to children who have only known the city, and they develop a routine of going to watch (and wave at) the morning train to London, not least communicating with an old gentleman (Neil Salvage) who waves back. They also befriend station master Perks (Stewart Wright) and his son John (Callum Goulden) who marvel at their posh accents, yet The Railway Children illustrates beautifully how little the young are inhibited by class rules.
Joy Brook is ideally cast as the proud mother who is ashamed when Bobby, Phyllis and Peter ask the old gentleman to get supplies when she falls ill with influenza, yet we see that their kind nature clearly emanates from her when she takes in the persecuted Russian socialist author Szczepansky (Will Richards) who is trying to find his family, and later the old gentleman’s grandson who breaks his leg in the railway tunnel during a school boy paper trail. Yes, not having a real life locomotive does aid the telling of this glorious slice of old England and is certain to delight families everywhere. Make sure you get to the ticket office and book a 1st Class seat.
The Railway Children at Theatre Royal Bath until 29th October before calling at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from 31st October – 5th November 2017. Production images by Mark Dawson. For more information and tickets please visit the website.