The Railway Children
Mike Kenny based on the novel by E Nesbit
The Railway Children is a ripping yarn that really benefits from a unique, site-specific staging. Whoever had the idea of commandeering the derelict Eurostar terminal at Waterloo for this production deserves every penny that they will undoubtedly make from it.
E(dith) Nesbit wrote this timeless children's tale at the beginning of the last century and ever since it has delighted generations of youngsters on the page.
In 1970, the story took on a new lease of life with a fondly remembered film version that helped to launch the careers of Jenny Agutter and Sally Thomsett, assisted by that old stager, Bernard Cribbins.
It took another 40 years before this stage version was created by writer Mike Kenny and director Damian Cruden, not forgetting designer Joanna Scotcher, for the York Theatre Royal to be staged in the town's National Railway Museum. With a magnificent soundscape courtesy of Craig Vear and clever use of simple visual tricks, it is easy for visitors to imagine that you are by a train line in the days of steam.
It is their vision which has enchanted a contemporary audience that one might think, in the days of Harry Potter and Wii, had outgrown traditional storytelling, however well presented.
There is little doubt that audiences both young and old will fall in love with the three plucky Railway Children and be thrilled by their adventures.
Any train spotters will not only enjoy the story (and Hornby set in the foyer) but be in seventh heaven at the end of each half of the 2½ hour production when the real thing steams in.
The children come from a well to do southern family that is suddenly thrown into crisis when kind, upstanding Father (Stephen Beckett) is imprisoned as a spy.
Pandora Collin's sturdy, youthful Mother takes on a dual role, moving the family up to Yorkshire and trying unsuccessfully to make ends meet with her writing.
What she, like almost everyone else in this story, has in abundance is pride. Up North in the old days, it seems that charity was a dirty word which always ended up connected to embarrassment.
Mother gets great support from her three lovely children Bobby the eldest, Peter the boy and Phyllis the trailer-after respectively played by Amy Noble, Tim Lewis and the particularly winning and winsome Grace Rowe as the youngest member of the family.
While they are incredibly good-natured and helpful, even the best-behaved children sometimes get into scrapes. This trio are no exceptions, although they also prove themselves to be heroic on a regular basis.
In this they are usually assisted by the local station master, Perks. He is played as a bluff Yorkshireman by comedy favourite Marcus Brigstocke, who peaks in a scene of heavily wounded pride.
During the evening, amongst other successes, the children help to cure Mother of influenza, prevent a train crash and save a boy with a broken leg, while the whole family looks after a lost Russian refugee who just happens to be a famous author in search of a family that the children inevitably assist in locating.
The spectacle is helped immensely by placing the 1,000-strong audience on Platforms either side of the action, although the playing space is so long that those sitting at either end can feel rather distant. Therefore, ideally, plump for a central seat as near to the front as you dare.
Fans of the book or the movie will undoubtedly love this production. Anyone who does not know yet E. Nesbit's classic should be taken along to find out what they are missing. They will almost certainly leave the theatre as devoted fans.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher