E Nesbit’s novel, The Railway Children, has been cherished by children and adults for several generations. It tells a beautiful, enduring tale of a family forced to relocate from the urban metropolis of London to the idyllic pastoral countryside of Oakworth. As the father is wrongfully accused of being a spy and imprisoned, his family are plummeted into poverty and are compelled to relocate to Yorkshire. The children struggle to settle into their new surroundings. Peter, Phyllis, and Roberta are immediately fascinated with the railway and its powerful steam trains. Each morning, they wave to the 09:15 train, becoming dubbed the Railway Children. A charming coming of age story, The Railway Children depicts the difficult relationship between childhood innocence and adult pride. The children strive to do the right thing, yet find it difficult to do so without wounding adult pride and having their good intentions mistaken for charity.
Adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny, The Railway Children embarked on a critically acclaimed run at the purpose built King’s Cross Theatre in 2016. It is currently available to download and watch for free, on Demand, through Sky Arts on Demand.
The 1,000 seat auditorium was built as an annex to King’s Cross Station, specifically for this production. This traverse stage boasts a railway track running through the middle of the theatre, with the audience sat on either side of the railway track on raised platforms. This gives the impression that the audience is sat at a railway platform, awaiting the same 09:15 train as the children. There is an impressive bridge above the tracks, with a railway station building. Joanna Scotcher’s production design is truly spectacular, with the icing on the cake being an actual steam locomotive that thunders into the station at several points during the play. This is particularly effective during the scene where the children have to warn the train that there has been a landslide on the tracks; endangering their own lives. Having an actual locomotive during this pivotal scene adds a real sense of peril and danger that takes your breath away. The stunning level of detail throughout the set design is the finest aspect for me. The audience’s eye is directed across several different levels and heights, as the action moves from the submerged train tracks, to the heights of the bridge. The station building is decorated with delightful antique advertisements for Rowntrees Pastilles, Bovril, and Cadbury’s chocolate. It gives the production a charming, nostalgic feeling which permeates throughout the play.
Christopher Madin’s delightful musical score also invokes a sense of nostalgia, making the play utterly charming and idyllic. It is so delightful, it has the audience clapping along with it. Craig Vear’s sublime sound design also deserves significant praise as it perfectly captures the sounds of the railway, from the chuffing sounds of the locomotives, to the steam engine’s whistle, and the hissing of steam as the trains pull into the station. Even when locomotives are not physically on stage, the audience can easily imagine that they are at a railway platform. Another thing that impressed me was Vear’s brilliant use of the echo sound effect, added to dialogue, to render an empty house or a railway tunnel. It was used to particularly great effect when amplifying character’s voices, to give the impression that they were speaking through a tannoy system during an award ceremony and presentation. All the technical aspects of the production were remarkably executed and perfectly suited to a children’s classic.
The play’s narrative is relayed through the principle characters’ reflections of their childhood. A bold decision was made to use adult actors to portray the Railway Children. This is a delicate balance to achieve and sometimes does not work. However, in this play, the principle actors seamlessly switch from their adult narratives to their childhood selves so subtly it is hard to notice. The actors perfectly capture the innocence and naivety of childhood without being condescending. Beth Lilly’s performance as Phyllis wonderfully embodies the joy and delight of being a child, which is delightful to watch and thoroughly infectious. Izaak Cainer brilliantly manages to portray the shame and guilt of being caught stealing coal. Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey’s Roberta delivers a fully rounded performance as her character matures throughout the play. The audience witness Roberta growing from a child into a young woman. There is a truly touching scene where Roberta discovers the secret of her father’s incarceration, which is genuinely moving and heart breaking. Her introduction to romance is also beautiful to watch as she captures the awkwardness of first love. All the characters are fully believable and utterly endearing, and just like the book, they provide a nostalgic reflection of childhood.
The support cast also demonstrate fine performances, in particular, Martin Barrass’ Mr Perks. The most moving part of the play was his character mistaking the children’s good intentions of celebrating his birthday. Mr Perks mistakes their gifts as charity, berating the children for wounding his pride. This is a heart-wrenching scene, where the cruelty of adult pride is revealed to the children. It is a brutal scene which would be difficult for younger members of the audience to watch. However, for adults, it shines a spotlight on the differences in perspective between children and adults. The scene highlights the loss of innocence with age and how, as you grow older, you become more concerned with the judgement of others. This is effectively mirrored in the mother’s character, who selfishly keeps secrets from her children to protect her family’s pride.
Mike Kenny’s The Railway Children is a delight from start to finish. It will appeal to audiences of all ages and boasts spectacular production design. The play remains thoroughly entertaining, with characters repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, such as Peter’s exclamation; “How splendid! Just like in a book!”. The audience are also encouraged to wave to the 09:15 train, sending the children’s love to their father. This production captures the essence of E. Nesbit’s novel and I strongly encourage everyone to watch it whilst it is still available to download for free.
Photo Credits = Tristram Kenton