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The Railway Children (review)

Stirling Single with Sarah Quintrell (Roberta). Photo by Simon Annard

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

FIRST a confession – I’ve neither read Edith Nesbit’s book nor seen the acclaimed 1970 film, so Mike Kenny’s stage adaptation of The Railway Children, which has just opened in the former Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo Station, was a revelation in more ways than one.

As many of you will already know, The Railway Children is about Roberta (Bobby), Peter and Phyllis, three children whose lives change dramatically when their father is falsely imprisoned. With their mother, they move to a cottage in rural Yorkshire, where they befriend Mr Perks, the local railway porter…

The characters immortalized by Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins are now played by Sarah Quintrell and Marshall Lancaster, with Nicholas Bishop as Peter, Louisa Clein as Phyllis and Caroline Harker as Mother. Obviously I can make no comparisons but I didn’t find them in the least bit disappointing for without exception, they handled the roles with confidence, proficiency and charm.

For the purposes of the play, Kenny took one small liberty – to have the children tell the story in retrospect. Consequently, the script constantly moves from narrative to dialogue though with such consummate ease that it seems perfectly natural. And here, all credit must go to the cast.

The Old Gentleman (David Baron) is a sort of Fairy Godmother figure but The Railway Children is no fairy story. It tackles issues such as the plight of the ‘single’ mother in an age when there was no welfare state and no benefit system, which meant if a mother couldn’t provide for her children, they simply starved. And Harker’s Mother admirably conveys her fears while at the same time, endeavouring to protect her children from the truth.

Just two small criticisms with the storyline itself – how on earth did the injured boy survive in the tunnel (a brilliantly devised prop incidentally) and how was Father’s release from prison effected quite so readily?

The action takes place on the two station platforms as well as on added space created by special mobile platforms that glide seemingly effortlessly over the rails – a feat managed by the tireless efforts of unobtrusive stage hands.

Joanna Scotcher’s wonderful set has transformed Waterloo International into an early twentieth century country station and the costumes are beautiful. I especially liked Bobby’s boots. And of course, there’s the train – Stirling Single, which was built in 1870 and is characterised by a single pair of eight foot one inch driving wheels. It appears twice, the first time (and I won’t spoil it by telling you when), is pure theatrical magic.

The Railway Children is a unique and uplifting theatre experience, one that really shouldn’t be missed. Children as well as ‘grown-ups’ will find much to enjoy in the production, making it an ideal treat for the long school holiday ahead.

The Railway Children Gallery

The Railway Children is booking until September 4, 2010 – now extended until January 2, 2011.

Tickets: £20.50 – £45. 50, plus concessions. Price includes £1 donation to Railway Children Charity.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes (including interval).

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