One of the very finest children's stories of the 20th century: it never for a moment runs out of steam.
Mike Kenny's imaginative stage adaptation of E. Nesbit's much-loved children's classic created a huge stir and broke box office records when it was first staged – with real steam trains - at the National Railway Museum in York and then at Waterloo Station in London.
Famously filmed, this story of a prosperous Edwardian family - a mother and three children - forced into near-penury in the rural north of England captures the anxieties and exhilarations of childhood with great tenderness and insight.
As Mike Kenny says of his remarkably faithful adaptation, 'You don't need a real train to perform this play… the most powerful prop is the imagination of the audience, the most effective tool the skill of the actors.'
'The three lead actors manage to do two very difficult things: be adults playing children and three characters working together as one. When it’s done this well, you never doubt the achievement'
'In these dark days, with winter approaching in more senses than one, it is nice to feast on something wholesome, something that helps restore one’s faith in fundamental human goodness.'
This amateur production of 'The Railway Children' is presented by arrangement with Nick Hern Books.
Review by Nick Le Mesurier
In these dark days, with winter approaching in more senses than one, it is nice to feast on something wholesome, something that helps restore one’s faith in fundamental human goodness. Cue Edith Nesbit’s perennial story of three middle-class children forced into rural poverty by the unjust imprisonment of their father. ‘The Railway Children’ has delighted audiences young and old since it was first published in 1905, when it then had very current concerns with geo-political issues that are kept firmly in the background of the story but which nevertheless drive the plot.
Many people will know it from the 1970 film starring Jenny Agattur and Bernard Cribbins, and recall the famous scene in which Agattur, as Bobbie the eldest daughter, is re-united with her father on the railway station. Few who have seen it will forget her cry of “Daddy! My Daddy!” nor boast that they did not shed a tear at the time.
Let me tell you, this stage production recreates that scene, and that feeling throughout. There were many in the packed and very mixed age audience who had hankies in their hands at the end (me included). And why not? It is story of faith and resilience and kindness; of dignity and fortitude and a belief in justice. These are rare sentiments nowadays, at least on the public stage.
The three lead actors manage to do two very difficult things: be adults playing children and three characters working together as one. When it’s done this well you never doubt the achievement. Leonie Slater is simply dazzling as Bobbie, the eldest of the three Waterbury children. She combines a growing sensibility and maturity with a playful innocence. Who could not fall in love with Phyllis (Charlotte Rawson), the youngest child, with her humour and charm? And Peter (Ted McGowan) the boy in the middle, aged ten, not yet a man, squabbling with his sisters yet utterly devoted to them. Keeping the three together as children is the mother figure, played by Jan Nightingale. She knows of the dangers going on offstage, and the reason for their father’s imprisonment, but she fiercely protects her children from the knowledge of it. We might not do that today, but we can feel the strain of her courage and the joy of their ignorance.
Then there are the supporting members of the cast, too many to mention by name but all worthy of commendation. Mr Perks (Johnny Smyth) is the friendly station porter whose good heart and pride provide a lynch pin to the story. Andrew Sharpe is both stern and affectionate as the father, and I liked Emma Whewell’s busty portrayal as the maid and Mrs Viney. Lukasz Nowacki as Mr Szezcpansky, the Russian dissident and refugee from the Tsarist prison camps, whom the family take in and accept without question, is becoming an actor to watch. The show deservedly received a rapturous reception from an enthralled audience.
The story is full of familiar references to Edwardian England: a period often portrayed as ‘golden’, when in fact it was full of harsh injustices. But here in Three Chimneys, the fictional house in the fictional village of Oakworth, we can believe for a while in the possibility of something better.
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