E. Nesbit’s beloved tale of three ordinary suburban children is brought to life in this purpose-built theatre with a real steam train.
After their father is called away, Bobbie (Serena Manteghi), Peter (Jack Hardwick) and Phyllis (Louise Calf) move with their mother to a darling little cottage in Yorkshire. In this rural village, they manage to meet some very interesting people and get into all sorts of scrapes when they try to help their Mother cope with their new life.
Although most people have seen the original film starring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins, few have read the book. This version seems to follow the film fairly closely, missing out the same elements of the book as the film (such as the barge fire), but is still fairly representative of the story.
What I found slightly awkward was the script. The three children are now grown up and reminiscing about when they were The Railway Children, before descending into a childish row and continuing to tell the story.
There is no fourth wall and the three talk to the audience in narrative and conversation in what is a slightly patronising way, asking them to remember certain things that are mentioned and referencing the fact that this is a play. Although this makes it more family-friendly, it does lose a bit of its magic and the phrase ‘to be honest’ is overused and seems a bit too modern for an Edwardian piece. And don’t get me started on the Edwardian Wave and the thumbs up.
That said, this production is visually stunning – the set is incredible, with the audience sat either side of the tracks on platforms. The seats could be raised slightly and action that takes place at each end is difficult to see for those not close by. Stage areas are wheeled on and off up and down the railway tracks which is very clever.
When Jim (Mark Hawkins) is trapped in the tunnel, the blacks come across the track and it is lit up from the inside – this is an inspired idea and ensures that everyone can clearly see what was going on.
It’s not often that a prop (well, is it a prop?) gets a clap, but the steam train used in The Railway Children gets its own round of applause when it chugs its way into the station. It is pretty amazing to see a real train complete with carriage appear in front of you!
Acting is good, with Louise Calf the strongest of the three ‘children’, managing to come across as the put out youngest child very well. Serena Manteghi is a sensible (albeit girly) Bobbie and she does fairly well with the “Daddy, my daddy”, but it’s not quite Jenny Agutter and Jack Hardwick is a precocious Peter.
There are far too many Perks’ children who sit around not really doing much and the three Railway Children at the end are far too young to be representative of the ages the children are in the book. Perks himself (Jeremy Swift) is a friendly chap, but the script doesn’t really allow for his relationship with the children to develop as it does in the book.
However, this is a unique and different adaptation that despite its faults somehow manages to do justice to the story of The Railway Children and the children in the audience were spellbound from the very start.
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes
Photo: Tristram Kenton
The Railway Children is playing at the Kings Cross Theatre until 6 September 2015. Book tickets here