Having read E Nesbit’s classic children’s book, and seen Lionel Jeffries’ famous film, I was concerned that Furness Youth Theatre’s stage production of The Railway Children might invite unwelcome comparisons. I need not have worried as it turns out to be a novel production with its own individual character and charm.
The play centres on the exploits and adventures of Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis when they are forced to leave their secure and comfortable life in London, and adjust to a new and more impoverished life in the countryside, when their father is mysteriously taken from them.
The three young leads therefore have a great deal of work to do, but each take to their task with confidence, managing to convey the distinctive traits of their characters convincingly. Aurora Park for example deftly portrays the sensible, level-headedness of Bobbie, whilst also managing to convey her underlying vulnerability. I also enjoyed the sparring between self-important Peter (Ethan Weir-Preston) and the lively, mischievous Phyllis (Jessica Bailey), which felt very natural.
The key feature throughout however is that, amongst the cast, there is never an adult in sight, since this is a cast with an age range of 5-16. This means that pulling off an effective portrayal of the avuncular ‘old gentleman’ and the proud Mr Perks, the Station Master, is an undoubted challenge, but I feel this only adds to the charm of the piece.
As well as the appeal of the cast, the success of this production owes as much to the skill of Director Chris Loveless who comes with an impressive CV, which includes considerable success in the professional theatre of London’s West End, and beyond. He has clearly harnessed the enthusiasm of his young cast and I am struck by how well they perform together as a cohesive unit, with moments of mutual support when needed. Neither are the general production values ignored. Particularly impressive is the appearance of a real steam locomotive, puffing smoke and breathing steam in all the right places. It produces the required gasp of surprise from the audience, and is one of those moments of theatrical magic every production should have.
It is also important to note that, as an added bonus, the evening opens with a specially written performance piece entitled Railway Roundabout. It comprises a series of vignettes of railway history, including a nice mix of short scenes, song and dance in a way which gave all members of the company, even the youngest, a chance to shine. It is a sheer delight. Together with the main event, as far as the future is concerned, this production surely proves that Furness Youth Theatre is firmly on the right track.