The Railway Children

Adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny from the book by E. Nesbit
York Theatre Royal production
National Railway Museum
(2008)

Production photo

After last year's sell out success, York Theatre Royal are back at the National Railway Museum with The Railway Children. Mike Kenny's delightful adaptation brings E. Nesbit's classic children's book to life with a large cast, imaginative staging and, best of all, a real live steam train!

After the sudden arrest of their father, Roberta, Peter and Phyllis's world is turned upside down and the three children are taken to live in the remote Yorkshire countryside by their mother. Compared to their lavish London home, life at Three Chimney's Cottage is simple yet full of adventure. The children spend their days on the railway and make many new friends.

Mike Kenny's storytelling fluently flips between dialogue and direct address narrative and always keeps the relentless and thrilling action moving on. The adaptation is always faithful to the book and brilliantly imbues the piece with an up-to-date modernity. The play is inventive and fun, with generous props, costumes and technical mastery, yet pleasingly still asks a little use of the audience's imagination.

Damian Cruden's direction of the piece is impeccable. Staged in traverse, a railway line is set deep down between two railway platforms. Rostra glide in and out on the track, providing a central stage space on which much of the play unfolds. The chaotic array of servants packing up the affluent lives of the family melts into a busy station platform, a departing train, the sparser Yorkshire kitchen, a coal pile, the mother's sick bed and the interior of the porter's lodge. Everybody on stage negotiates the challenges and complexities of this daring and breathtaking set with a light footed agility that is a joy to watch.

This year's production returns with many of the original cast. Frances Marshall once again brings a deliciously enthusiastic innocence to her role as Phyllis and Jonathan Race is back again, superbly bold as her venturesome big brother, Peter. All three of the actors playing the central children's parts are strong and utterly convincing, especially in the squabbling sibling moments, but it is Roberta to whom the story really belongs. As we follow her from London to Yorkshire, from wide eyed wealthy young girl to sensible headed young woman, Roberta's journey is touchingly brought to life by Sarah Quintrell. The scenes between Roberta and her Mother (Andrina Carroll) are particularly well acted, the subtleties of the strain between Mother and eldest daughter are well timed and suitably awkward.

Many of the cast are required to double in their parts and Robin Simpson impressively takes on several roles. He expertly captures the stiffness and formality of the upright Butler, the ragged and spluttering Russian author taken in by the family, and even Jim, the paper chase boy with the broken leg that the children heroically rescue from a tunnel.

New to this year's cast are Martin Barras and Kali Peacock in their roles as Mr and Mrs Perks, the Station Master and his wife. Kali Peacock brings an appropriately earthy robustness to Mrs Perks, and Martin Barras is chirpy and loveable as the proud hard working father of an ever increasing brood.

In addition to the principal cast members The Railway Children employs a large team of younger actors who take on various roles as train passengers, the Perks children, and paper chase racers. These supporting parts are directed with a detail and precision that is never indulgent or surplus to the requirements of the story.

Joanna Scotcher's design is engaging and specific. The stunning costumes, multitude of cleverly used suitcases and perfect selection of period props all help to define the nostalgic Edwardian era.

The Railway Children is an enchanting and breathtaking production. It is full of laughs, spectacle and wonder and the final scene in which Roberta is finally reunited with her beloved long lost father is heartbreaking. This is an absolute summer essential for big and small.

Running to 5th September

Reviewer: Hannah Davies