Writer: E Nesbitt
Adaptor: Dave Simpson
Director: Paul Jepson
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Trains, as you would expect, are a central feature of The Railway Children. It seems appropriate; therefore, that tonight there are technical glitches and the show starts late.
When their father disappears under mysterious circumstances Roberta (Millie Turner), Phyllis (Katherine Carlton) and Peter (Vinay Lad) are reduced to gentile poverty and have to move from London to Three Chimneys cottage in Yorkshire. They pass the time playing on the railway and befriend the station master Perks (Stewart Wright who effectively serves as narrator) and his son John (Callum Goulden making a return to the theatre where he trained in the Young Actors Company). The children make a strong impact on the community helping to avert train disasters and trace injured children which helps no end when they discover the real reason why their father went away.
Aspects of the play seem, to a contemporary audience, ripe for parody with the children having ‘terribly British’ enthusiasms and a female character whose shoe is constantly coming undone. Director Paul Jepson takes a respectful approach to the source material and resists the temptation to adopt an ironic tone. The closest thing to an in-joke is the local doctor becoming increasingly frustrated and exhausted by the number of house calls he has to make to Three Chimneys.
But Jepson is too honest to present the early 20th century setting as a simple golden age in which children could play out from dawn to dust without fear and parents were adored. The children learn social awareness by discovering families in their village sleep seven in a bed and a dissident Soviet writer introduces them to the concept of socialism from which they learn to share.
Considering that the play harks back to earlier, simpler times it is ironic that the production is full of technical innovations. Timothy Bird’s video designs create the village and station backgrounds and, more significantly, the trains that rush through the station and countryside.
Yet despite the efforts of all involved The Railway Children is not very dramatic. The first Act in particular is very slow moving and the big dramatic centrepieces – Roberta signalling to the train driver to avoid a crash and the children discovering an injured child- lack tension. The second Act at least has a few more laughs, mainly from Callum Goulden’s endlessly cheerful John, but the old-fashioned stiff upper lip attitude of the characters makes it hard to engage emotionally with the play.
The Railway Children is a very respectful adaptation of a classic but one cannot help but wish for a few more scrapes and scares.
Runs until 30 July, 2017 | Image: Mark Dawson