(l-r) Katherine Carlton as Phyllis, Millie Turner as Roberta, Vinay Lad as Peter and Callum Goulden as John in The Railway Children. Photo: Mark Dawson Photography
Touring the UK until early November is a new production of E. Nesbit’s famous classic tale of The Railway Children – which has pulled into Richmond Theatre this week before heading up to the Midlands and to Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre to continue its journey.
Not to be confused with the Mike Kenny’s adaptation which was recently produced at London’s King’s Cross Station (complete with a very real, full-size locomotive), Dave Simpson’s new stage adaptation for this current touring production provides a pacey piece which doesn’t give the younger minds in the audience – of which there are many – much chance to wander.
Of course the central focus of The Railway Children – apart from the Edwardian family forced to leave London for the Yorkshire Dales following their father’s wrongful arrest as a spy – is the railway itself. Thankfully, the problem of a real steam locomotive thundering down the track has been deftly overcome with the use of modern technology. Timothy Bird’s signal box-style set design includes some remarkable digital projections mixed with just the right amount of special stage effects. Complement these with Dominic Jeffery’s lighting and Ben Harrison’s sound design and the experience is beautifully authentic.
Under Paul Jepson’s direction, Edith Nesbit’s classic story is given a very warm and likable twist thanks to Simpson’s adaptation using Perks, the station master, as narrator throughout – a part handled extremely well by Stewart Wright. Millie Turner, sporting an identical hairstyle to Jenny Agutter’s 1970 film portrayal, does well as the eldest sibling Roberta, especially when she can’t stop herself talking. Vinay Lad’s Peter spars well with Katherine Carlton’s hilariously feisty Phyllis – as only brother and sister can – and I liked the addition of Callum Goulden as Perks’ eldest son, John.
Joy Brook does a great job of heading up Yorkshire’s newest family as the children’s mother desperately attempting to make the best of their new life; her kindness and likability proving an instant hit with the locals.
At times the sheer pace and energy of the piece threatens to turn proceedings into an episode of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, with the spoof reaching its climax when the model train at the rear of the stage completely toppled over (to a mix of sympathy and delight from the audience), but somehow none of it seemed to matter. The press night audience actually gave a cheerful round of applause when the same model train was finally successful in its latter crossing of the stage. I suspect such tongue-in-cheek moments on are probably all part of Paul Jepson's grand design, as Neil Savage might testify when the 'Old Gentleman' glides across the stage at various points pulling his own train carriage.
This is a real family show where one really doesn’t mind overlooking the odd toppling prop in favour of the younger audience members being immersed in the magic of theatre for an evening. In a splendidly colour-blind production where Perks’ Afro-Caribbean wife (a perfectly cast Andrea Davy) stole her husband’s birthday-party scene brilliantly, The Railway Children gives a splendid lift as the summer holidays draw to a close.
Stewert Wright as Mr Perks in The Railway Children. Photo: Mark Dawson Photography