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The Railway Children

Edith Nesbit adapted by Beth Flintoff
The Watermill Senior Youth Theatre
The Watermill, Newbury

Courtney Renouf, Michael Seath and Thea Manton Credit: Philip Tull
Matilda Beresford, Dylan Morris, Robyn Luke and Phoebe Reid Credit: Philip Tull
The Company Credit: Philip Tull

E Nesbit’s classic novel The Railway Children has had many adaptions over the years from television to the feature film in 1970 famously starring Jenny Agutter to the recent theatre adaptions at the National Railway Museum and in London at Kings Cross station.

Beth Fintoff’s moving and funny adaption for the Watermill Senior Youth Theatre is imaginatively directed by Heidi Bird and is exceedingly impressive in what is a vibrant pacey production.

It is performed in-the-round, which creates an intimate atmosphere with a period set and beautiful costumes designed by Toots Butcher.

Nick Lodge’s musical score and soundscape is haunting and it is strikingly lit by Lawrence T Doyle.

The story revolves around an Edwardian middle class family who live in the suburbs of London. When the father, who works in the Foreign Office, is arrested and imprisoned after being falsely accused of spying, the family are forced to move to live in Yorkshire.

It is told through the eyes of the older Bobbie sensitively performed by Lilia Norman who narrates much of the story with Thea Manton as the middle Bobbie and Matilda Beresford as young Bobbie, a clever device to show the passing of time.

The family settle in a small cottage, The Three Chimneys, near to the railway line and soon become integrated into village life.

Robyn Luke gives a sterling performance as the stoic mother trying to keep the family together under extremely difficult circumstances relying on her writing to provide enough money for food.

Bobbie and her two siblings Peter, delightfully played by Michael Seath, and the sensible Phyllis (Courtney Renouf) befriend Perks, the proud station porter (Lloyd Clements Hart), who takes pity on the children.

Josie Embleton is the warm-hearted, reliable cook who helps the family keep their spirits up together with Ruth, the maid (Amelia Hooper).

Each morning, the children run down to wave at the 9:45 train to London and an Old Gentleman (Sam Harris) regularly waves back. The train is ingeniously created through billows of smoke and the clever use of umbrellas.

The family look after the Russian exile writer Mrs Szezcpansky (Eleanor Taylor) who is searching for her family.

During a school paper chase, the children save Jim (Harry Forkin) who breaks his leg in the tunnel just as a train is about to arrive. He turns out to be the Old Gentleman’s grandson.

In a powerful moment, a landslide brings down trees onto the railway line, dramatically realised by the cast using suitcases. The approaching train is in danger of crashing and the girls tear their red petticoats and desperately wave them to try to stop the train and save the day, much to everyone’s relief.

The emotional ending when the father (Harry Donoghue) arrives at the station a free man and Bobbie runs to embrace him uttering the famed words “My Daddy! My Daddy!" brought tears to the eyes.

The large ensemble cast were spot on and this is storytelling that has poignancy in a touching and joyful production.

Reviewer: Robin Strapp