You know The Railway Children. Everyone knows The Railway Children. Jenny Agutter fluttering her red petticoats, Bernard Cribbins fussing around the station, Iain Cuthbertson slowly emerging from the steam, William Mervyn waving from the train. A Christmas treat for all the family. All, that is, except for Mrs Chrisparkle, who’s never seen it, never read it, and who would never choose E. Nesbit as her specialised subject on Mastermind. I must admit, it’s not my favourite of her books; I always preferred The Phoenix and the Carpet. The Phoenix was such a big-head, he always made me laugh.
The Railway Children is one of those stories that never goes away. Even though it’s 111 years old now, the film is a classic, an evergreen; voted 66th best ever British film, I understand. The stage adaptations have proved immensely popular for new generations, frequently being staged at railway stations or museums and featuring real live steam trains. This current touring production by the Northcott Theatre Exeter – with Dave Simpson’s 1984 adaptation of the book, the original stage adaptation – doesn’t feature such high-tech authenticity. In fact, it almost makes a selling point of its low-tech approach. When the train goes by in the distance it’s clearly a model being pulled on a string. When the Old Gentleman is shown travelling past in the train, you can see his little feet going nineteen-to-the-dozen underneath the carriage, a la Fred Flintstone. When the railway station set snaps into place, a free-standing column that’s meant to hold up the station roof ends up swinging in the breeze because it’s too short to reach the floor, like a cross between a hangman’s gallows and a grandfather clock pendulum. When the opaque planes fall into place, onto which are projected all the other countryside, railway and street scenes, the word “fragile” on the bottom right pane is constantly visible as a weird reminder to the stagehands to treat it with care – very bizarre, that one.
But somehow, none of this matters. It’s the innate strength of the story and the overwhelming decency of the performances that win the day and provide a highly entertaining and truly sweet portrayal of a once well-to-do young family fallen on hard times whilst their father is mysteriously missing. (Why is it that everyone reading it or watching it has twigged that he’s been sent to prison but it never occurs to the kids? Naïve or what!) Whilst this is a show that will obviously appeal to a younger audience, it also has a very nostalgic appeal too – plenty of people in the (albeit rather small) audience for the first night in Northampton were children in the 50 plus age bracket. In the same way that a pantomime can work on many levels, this production also has a few nicely underplayed moments of more adult humour. For example, after the family have already cared for the Russian refugee Szczpansky, and are now also looking after the Old Gentleman’s grandson Jim, Perks, the Station Master (ahh for the Good Old Days) has a knowing look when he reports that yet another young man has taken up residence in Mother’s spare bedroom (wink, wink).
There’s an amusing running (literally) joke that has the doctor arriving at Three Chimneys, each time more and more exhausted due to the urgency of the call (or maybe it’s the rotundity of his stomach). There’s also some enjoyable class/society interplay, primarily between Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter on the one hand, and Perks’ vagabond son, John, on the other. For every “rather!” and “spiffing!” that Peter utters, he’s riposted by an “eyup” or an “eebahgum” from John, with neither of them realising quite how stereotyped the creative team have made them. Perks Senior, however, never belittles the Londoners for their posh way of talking because respect is his watchword.
We were surprised how moral and, indeed, socialist, the story is; everyone seems to have read the banned book by Szczpansky (clearly pro-proletariat and anti-Czar) and everyone, even including the Old Gentleman, who’s the archetype of tradition and conservatism (one would have thought) has a good word to say about it. The family are always acting selflessly, whether it’s protecting and nurturing sick individuals like Szczpansky or Jim, or risking their own safety to prevent a terrible train crash. When the children get all the tradespeople of the village to contribute a present for Perks’ birthday, it’s not charity that is their incentive to donate but a sense of a community pulling together to recognise the fine contribution he makes to their society. Even the doctor is willing to make house calls and treat people without any certainty of getting paid for it. If any one character is (gently) mocked, it’s young Phyllis for her petulant refusal to share. It comes as no surprise to discover that E. Nesbit was a Marxist and co-founder of the Fabian Society.
The production is positively dripping with charming performances. Joy Brook’s Mother is kindness and positivity personified as she cheerfully refuses to eat so that her children don’t go hungry in a scene that’s worthy of I Daniel Blake for the Edwardian era. It’s not hard to see why she would be the perfect mainstay of any family. Millie Turner’s Roberta is a generous and thoughtful young lady, definitely a chip off the old block, with a big heart that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying some adventure too. Katherine Carlton is hilarious as the spoilt Phyllis, truly wanting her cake and eating it; and Vinay Lad makes a terrific professional debut as the hearty young Peter, relishing all his ripping hyperboles like a junior Jay Gatsby.
I loved Andrea Davy as Mrs Perks, another character who only sees the best in people and really enjoys life, no matter what it chucks at you. Neil Salvage is a charming Old Gentleman, although he looks alarmingly like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2, and there’s great support from Andrew Joshi as the puffed-out physician and Will Richards as Szczpansky and Jim; indeed, anyone who will get looked after in the spare bedroom, really. Callum Goulden displays just the right amount of cheekiness as the boisterous John. But maybe it’s Stewart Wright as Perks who really makes us smile most of all, with all his little narrative asides and startling friendliness; he brought out the child in me and made me want to become a train driver all over again.
I’d recommend this whole-heartedly if you want a nostalgia trip or are thinking of something to take the kids to see – or the grandparents – or yourself. Sugar for the soul, as Steve Balsamo once said. After its week in Northampton it steams on to Bromley, Leicester, Southampton, Bath and Aylesbury.
P. S. I feel certain this production would suit a smaller, more intimate theatre much better than the vast expanses of the Derngate auditorium. It’s a shame that the set is (I’m assuming) too wide for the Royal stage, because the show would have been perfect in there.
P. P. S. I’m not entirely sure Mrs C has the same sentimental heart as other people who have wept buckets over Bobbie’s final reunion with Daddy, her Daddy. “Sent to prison for five years?”, she asked; “what’s the problem? He’ll only do two and a half.”
Production photos by Mark Dawson