The Railway Children
Kings Cross Station
In 1905 when Edith Nesbit first published The Railway Children in The London Magazine, Britain was a very different place from today.
It was a land of two halves. There were dirty, busy, unfriendly and expanding cities where many lived in poverty and squalor, cheek-by-jowl with those of great wealth and privilege. Then there was the countryside. For the most part this was a place of tranquillity, fresh air and safety where people were proud, hardworking citizens who looked out for one another.
For mother (Caroline Harker), Bobby (Serena Manteghi), Peter (Jack Hardwick) and Phyllis (Louise Calf), their transition from city life in the south, to a more modest existence in Yorkshire, was more than a culture shock to the system.
They’d been lifted and laid by a team of servants in their grand London mansion, until the untimely departure of father, who was whisked away to the clink for an unspeakable misdemeanour. The sudden departure of father (Andrew Loudon) profoundly affected the family coffers, mother’s health and ultimately the dynamics of this once rock solid family unit.
Despite the odd nod to the darker and perhaps less romantic reality of life at the time, Damian Cruden’s epic sized tale has little bite and shies away from the grittier aspects of the original book. The hardships and struggles faced by Mr Perks's (Jeremy Swift) family and the lack of necessities experienced by the children and mother are abundantly clear, despite being sugar-coated and somewhat watered-down.
The cuteness and innocence of Bobby, Peter and Phyllis makes their adventures heart-warming, nostalgic fodder perfect for the drab aftermath of Christmas. All three actors convincingly regress back to youngsters and portray all the unnecessary energy, stupidly and naivety of a child.
The overarching story of struggle, hardship and defying the odds is one that’s relevant today, but the bland mediocre personalities or lack thereof amongst all three kids is the only giveaway sign the play is based on a utopia and time that’s now long since gone.
The story, actors and even the slick set, based on two platforms either side of a set of railway tracks used to glide moving plinths along for the actors, all play second fiddle to the impressive and roaring arrival of sixty tonnes of train right at the end of the first half.
Although staggeringly beautiful, it was perhaps too late in the show for many of the young audience to appreciate. The locomotive has been loaned from the National Railway Museum and, given the effort, hype and impression it made when it finally did arrive, it’s a shame it was restricted to little more than a cameo appearance or two.
Having a train roll into this specially created theatre with seats tiered along either side of the platforms (stage), coupled with the shudder of the seats, rattle of the lights and gushing steam is overwhelming. What a shame something so powerful is so limited.
The Railway Children is a heartwarming glimpse of life long since gone when people really did leave their doors unlocked. The predictable ending, perfectly perfect children, Mary Poppins style mother, happy train conductor and even happier Russian man is perhaps a tale too far for the tech-savvy youngsters of the world that exists today.
Reviewer: Thomas Magill