The Railway Children

The Railway Children Return

15/07/22

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

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