The Railway Children
Mike Kenny, adapted from the book by E. Nesbit
York Theatre Royal production
It is only fair that I admit there's steam in my blood: my grandfather was a steam locomotive driver and the first book I wrote was about railways so you may feel I'm partisan when a show is promoted as having a real old steam train as star of the show.
This York Theatre Royal production arrives after two successful seasons at the Railway Museum in York trailing clouds of critical praise, including enthusiastic reviews from my colleagues in the North, to a performance space created from the platforms (and track) of the former Eurostar terminus at Waterloo. Audiences find themselves banked on either side of a very wide traverse that presents a country railway station with signal box at one end and a bridge between the platforms at the other - but allow time for a long walk from box office to auditorium..
In fact, though the show does feature a fine 1870's G Class 4-2-2 locomotive with huge eight-foot driving wheels: the Stirling Single in sparkling green Great Northern livery, the production is much more imaginative than relying on the gimmick of a real train.
The first rail journey we see, when the Waterbury family have to give up their London home and move to the country, presents passengers sitting on boxes on a flat truck that is pushed along the rails by visible stage hands and similar trucks are used to represent all the interiors - whether London home, the Three Chimneys cottage, the railway porter's home or station offices - with smooth simplicity. In contrast, most of the trains passing through this station are exciting puffs of smoke, flashing lights and a roar that shakes every seat in the house. This is very much a piece of theatre; when the actors later call on us to use our imagination for a scene they cannot show, there really is no need, imagination has been in top gear right through the show.
The story, told in the form of a memory play, begins with grown up characters removing their hats to represent their child selves recounting their childhood adventures. Narration is interwoven with their action to tell a tale that includes a wrongly imprisoned father (something we know about but the children do not); a Russian political refugee, persecuted by the Tsar; well-meant stealing; an accident dramatically prevented and a life-risking rescue, as life teaches these children some lessons about responsibility and understanding. This adaptation echoes Nesbit's gentle middle-class socialism (she was one of the founders of the Fabian Society), though one daughter definitely wants servants when she grows and even when thinking themselves poor the Westbury's have a home help.
The last adaptation of this story that I saw I did not warm to, but to my surprise this one totally won me over. It is partly the skill of Damian Cruden's direction and the effectiveness of Joanna Scotcher's design, Richard R. Jones' lighting and the music and sound design of Christopher Madin and Craig Vear (including a thrillingly simple dark tunnel), but overwhelmingly due to the performances of a splendid cast who manage to project to this huge audience without losing a sense of intimacy. . Sarah Quintrell's resourceful Roberta, Nicholas Bishop's Peter and Louisa Clein's Phyllis are children who particularly engage the audience. Caroline Harker's writer mother gets just the right balance between middle-class propriety and warm-hearted new woman. David Baron is an endearing Old Gent, Marshall Lancaster as kindly Porter Perks gives him just the right edge of working class pride and Blair Piant is a mysteriously eccentric Schepansky, the Russian refugee.
Runs until 4th September 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton