The Railway Children

 

York Theatre Royal and the National Railway Museum

Encore Cinema Screening

28/03/16

I saw this play when it opened in 2008, and was blown away by the site-specific production: the idea of staging it inside the National Railway Museum, once realised, seemed at once audacious and really bloody obvious. The tracks made a natural traverse, and the audience, seated on the platforms either side, were closely involved with the action. It was an ingenious and engaging piece, and one I’ve talked about ever since. It was no surprise to see its run extended, year on year, nor to see it relocate to King’s Cross for London’s theatre crowd.

So today’s cinema screening was a welcome opportunity to see this production again. And it didn’t disappoint. Of course, a film can never quite evoke the immersive atmosphere of live theatre, but this was beautifully done, capturing the essence of this charming adaptation of E. Nesbit’s famous book.

The story is well known: Bobbie, Phyllis, Peter and their mother are obliged to relocate to the countryside after their father is called away; they don’t know where he has gone, but they do know that they are suddenly – and frighteningly – poor. The servants and luxuries they have grown up with have all gone, and they have to learn to live a very different kind of life. They gravitate towards the railway station, where they make friends, and come to learn a lot about themselves and others too.

In its original form, The Railway Children is a sweet – if somewhat cloying – tale; here, it is given a dash of spice, as the adult Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter reminisce, telling their story with a knowing, grown-up edge. This conceit works well; it seems natural when they engage with the audience, or point out moments that are difficult to stage. It’s humorous and witty – but still tear-jerking: the essence of the story is not diluted by the fresh approach. Is there anyone alive who doesn’t cry when – in print, on screen or on stage – Bobbie cries, “Oh daddy, my daddy”? If there is, I’ve never met them.

The performances are very good throughout (although Andrina Carroll, as Mother, did have a tendency to shout), but it’s the staging and design that are the stars of this show. Bare wooden blocks are pushed along the tracks, with simple props placed on them to evoke a range of locations. The platform and bridge are incorporated well, and the appearance of the hulking, steaming locomotive is a real wow moment.

If you haven’t seen this already, it’s certainly one to look out for.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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