Sheridan Smith

The Railway Children Return


Cineworld, Edinburgh

As a child, I loved Edith Nesbit’s books. I read and re-read the Bastables’ treasure-seeking adventures, and was totally immersed in the magical world of Five Children and It (although, because I borrowed them from our small village library, I never managed to read any of the series in the correct order). But it was The Railway Children that really stole my heart, and I know I’m not alone. It’s a lovely book, and Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 film adaptation really captured its essence. Both book and film deserve their classic status.

Sequels, though, are tricky things. Sometimes they spill out, one after another, quickly diluting the potency of the original (Home Alone, I’m looking at you). And sometimes it’s fifty-two years before one shows its face. Is it worth the wait?

In the main, I’d say the answer’s ‘yes’. Although The Railway Children Return will never match its progenitor, it’s nonetheless a charming tale, and remains true to the spirit of Nesbit’s novel.

Time has marched on since a trio of young children first arrived at Three Chimneys, reeling from their father’s sudden absence and their resulting change in circumstance. But, hey – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It’s 1944 and, although Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) is a grandma now, history is about to repeat itself. Lily (Beau Gadson), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby) are evacuees from Manchester – and Bobbie can’t help but empathise. Her daughter (Sheridan Smith) was only planning to accept one child; she’s very busy, after all, as headteacher of the local school, and how is she supposed to feed three hungry mouths? But she acquiesces; of course she does. Her son, Thomas (Austin Haynes), is a sweet-natured boy, and quickly befriends them all. If it weren’t for the constant background rumble of the war and their separation from their real family, this would be an idyll. But the real world keeps intruding: bombs fall; fathers die. And one day, whilst playing Hide and Seek in the railway station, the children make a startling discovery: an American soldier on a secret mission. Can they help Abe (Kenneth Aikens) achieve his goal?

The Railway Children Returns is a lot earthier than the original: Lily, Pattie and Ted are tough, working-class, city kids (although Danny Brocklehurst’s script avoids any obvious Goodnight, Mr Tom-style clichés), very different from the privileged Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter, for whom Three Chimneys – with its single, not even live-in servant – was quite the comedown. These kids scrap and tell mucky jokes, and they don’t mind lying to protect themselves. “You can’t kid a kidder,” says Lily.

Politically, the issues are different, but the tone is similarly liberal and progressive. In The Railway Children, Mrs Waterbury empathises with Russian dissidents, and takes in a refugee. In this sequel, the focus is on racism, particularly among the US troops, improbably stationed in the village. Abe is black, and has suffered horribly at the hands of his fellow officers. The message is a good one (‘racism is bad’), but it’s all very superficial, and it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest that only the Americans are prejudiced, while the local British community refuses, as one, to accept such bigotry. I know it’s a children’s tale, but children aren’t stupid, and they can deal with more nuance than this.

For the most part, though, director Morgan Matthews competently straddles the line between the bucolic dream and the wider-world nightmare, with moments of genuine sadness piercing the children’s fun. This, at least, feels very believable. It’s a shame, though, that Agutter isn’t given more to do.

Gadson’s Lily is the perfect successor to Bobbie: she has the same lively, attractive nature; the same determination and chutzpah. I think Beau Gadson is a name we’ll hear again. Who knows, maybe she’ll even appear as a granny in The Railway Children 3: Full Steam Ahead, coming to a cinema near you in 2074.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Funny Girl


Digital Theatre

I’m not at all sure that Funny Girl is quite my thing, but how will I know unless I give it a go? We haven’t watched a musical since lockdown began, so at the very least it’ll be a change. And Sheridan Smith is bound to be good, isn’t she?

Oh yes, she is. Smith is a delightful performer; she oozes charisma, and her vocals are stunning. She’s lively and likeable, connecting easily with the audience, even via the small screen.

I’m not mad about the play though. It’s too slight and feels dated (well, it is over fifty years since Barbra Streisand wowed in the movie version). It’s a biographical piece about 1920s Broadway star Fanny Brice, and the central notion seems to be how very surprising it is that someone as plain as Fanny can become successful. She’s so talented she can overcome her looks! And a handsome man even falls in love with her! It’s all a bit too Susan-Boyle-backstory for me.

Of course, it’s true that beauty matters far too much in show business, even now; it’s all too credible. It’s just that the script seems to venerate Fanny for overcoming her ordinary features, rather than excoriating an industry that values the wrong things.

The love story is weak as well. Darius Campbell plays Nick Arnstein, but I never really believe in him as a debonair playboy, and I never really get why Fanny falls for him the way she does. She seems so much stronger than him and so self-sufficient; the story is reminiscent of A Star is Born, but without the same tension. Nick doesn’t ever seem to have a star for Fanny to eclipse.

Nevertheless, this is a lively, spirited piece of theatre; the two hours pass by pleasantly. The choreography is cheeky and upbeat, and director Michael Mayer sensibly foregrounds the humour throughout. Because Fanny’s good-natured clowning is genuinely funny, and Smith knows how to make it land.

In fact, she’s so much better than the material it’s almost a travesty. She saves it, just, by being so irresistible.

3 stars

Susan Singfield































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































The More You Ignore Me


The More You Ignore Me, written by Jo Brand and directed by Keith English, has the potential to be very good. Based on Brand’s 2009 novel, it tells the tale of Alice (Ella Hunt), a teenager struggling to cope with the demands of her mother’s mental illness.

Things at home are tough: her dad (Mark Addy) is a gentle soul, and he does his best to keep things ticking along, but he’s not having much success. Alice’s mum, Gina (Sheridan Smith), spends most of her time immobilised by medication, sedated into a miserable paralysis – relieved only by episodes of psychosis, when she becomes volatile, railing against a world that can’t accommodate her needs. Alice is isolated: she can’t invite friends over to her house, and even though she has a lovely boyfriend, Mark (Alexander Morris), she’s persona non grata as far as his small-minded parents are concerned, the stigma of her mother’s condition being far too much for them to comprehend.

And then, one day, Ella hears The Smiths performing on TV and – like so many 80s teens – identifies with Moz’s lost-boy lyrics, convinced at last that there is somebody who really understands. She writes to Morrissey, pouring out her heart. And – to her delight – he actually replies.

It ought to work. Morrissey himself might have slipped from grace in recent years (oh Moz, I wish you didn’t think the way you do), but The Smiths songs stand the test of time, and I’d rather judge the art than the artist anyway. And Ella Hunt is mesmerising in the lead role, giving a subtle, heart-rending performance that always elicits sympathy. Mark Addy is terrific too, all good intentions and broken heart. Sally Phillips’ turn as the UK’s only under-worked GP is a nice diversion, Alexander Morris is convincingly awkward, and Clive Mantle’s Dunk is a beacon of hope.

But there’s a curious disconnect between these understated, naturalistic characters and the cartoonishly broad strokes applied to Gina and her family. The cast is strong – Sheridan Smith is undoubtedly a fine actor, and Sheila Hancock ought to be a good choice to play her mother. But it doesn’t work: it’s like they’ve wandered in from another, much worse, movie. There’s no nuance here, no sense of who they are and, in Gina’s case, of what’s been lost. Her father and brothers (Ricky Tomlinson, Tom Davis and Tony Way) are even more ridiculous, a trio of stereotypes with no credibility.

In the end, I’m left feeling frustrated by this film, not least because Ella Hunt’s performance deserves a more consistent vehicle.

3 stars

Susan Singfield