The Railway Children
E Nesbit, adapted by Mike Kenny
Hull Truck Theatre Company
Hull Truck Theatre
To those of us of a certain age, the memory of Jenny Agutter running through the smoke of a Yorkshire railway station towards the outstretched arms of Iain Cuthbertson shouting “Daddy, my daddy!” is enough to turn us into sobbing wrecks. So ends the universally lauded 1970 film version of Edith Nesbit’s novel The Railway Children, featuring one of Jenny Agutter’s most memorable performances. (This is a review of a family show so I won’t mention here Walkabout and An American Werewolf in London—damn!). The film, the 2000 TV remake and Mike Kenny’s renowned stage adaptation have all ensured the story has remained a firm family favourite.
Kenny’s adaptation is given a fresh, lively and colourful outing as Hull Truck’s Christmas show—and it contains all the right ingredients. There are some lovely performances in Mark Babych’s engaging and pacy production, particularly from the family members. Kate Hampson as the struggling matriarch shines as a combination of compassion and Edwardian reserve—her determination to keep the awful truth about her husband’s imprisonment from her children is tempered by her obvious joy in their company.
The children too are a delight—as indeed is the entire company. In Nesbit’s novel, it is often the children who teach the adults life lessons, as when they surprise the stationmaster Perks (Niall Costigan, suitably truculent!) with birthday presents that he is too proud to accept. The charm and warmth of the children so ably conveyed by Gina Jamieson (Roberta), David Fallon (Peter) and Robyn McIntyre (Phyllis) win him over.
The ensemble playing of the children is probably the strongest feature of this production with a wonderful chemistry between the three young actors. In an adaptation which relies a great deal on clear and brisk narration, the work of these three keeps the story vibrant and fast-moving. And while the script may afford Robyn McIntyre the funniest lines, she is absolutely on-point; a standout performance!
Ciaran Bagnall’s imaginative design provides the arena necessary for a story that takes us from affluent London to impoverished Yorkshire, with skilful use of a revolve to capture the scenes on the railway. The climactic moment of the train’s emergence as the children attempt to stop it towards the end of the first half is terrific stuff. Humour may have held sway over tension, but the impact is real and the moment memorable.
Nesbit’s story is not simply escapist fun and the more serious moments reveal something of her own politically aware background (she was a founder member of the Fabian Society). The Russian dissident fleeing persecution, the father falsely accused of espionage betray a less than perfect world; Nesbit’s story seems to tell us that a childlike integrity can solve problems rather more effectively than adult sophistry. If I have a criticism at all, it was that, at times, there was a slight feel of ‘send-up’ (similar to National Theatre of Brent’s 39 Steps) in the playing which then made the genuinely poignant moments jar slightly with the genre and harder to pull off.
Such criticisms are minor, however, when set against what the production does achieve: warmth, humour and an uplifting experience which will resonate with the audiences of Hull and East Yorkshire this Christmas. One not to be missed.
Reviewer: Richard Vergette