E. Nesbit’s classic novel The Railway Children has been adapted into a stage play which has pulled into London once again. This is the show’s third UK outing, following a production at the National Railway Museum in York and an Olivier Award winning transfer to Waterloo Station.
The show is about three siblings and their mother, who move from their huge London home to a small Yorkshire village after their father mysteriously disappears. Bobbie, the eldest sister, is in charge of narrating the story as they try to understand what has happened to their father. It’s one of E. Nesbit’s classic novels and wholly deserves such a huge scale production.
The staging makes the show far more special than your average theatre trip. It takes place in a custom built theatre behind Kings Cross which has been impeccably designed to look like an Edwardian railway station. There are two ‘platforms’ of seats facing a train track, and a series of wooden stages slide across them during the show. And yes, there’s even a real steam train. A lot of care and attention has gone into creating the world of The Railway Children and it’s really paid off.
But sadly, the staging outshines other aspects of the show. The main performances are as you’d expect; gentle, sweet, incredibly old fashioned, but ultimately a bit grating. The main problem I have is that the three ‘railway children’ are played by adults, something I always find tricky in theatre. It might just be that the show is too long and the parts too central for children to manage, but I don’t think that’s enough of a justification. Their eccentricity and childish enthusiasm is too forced and makes the characters seem a bit two dimensional.
Fortunately the other performers do well to hold up the production, particularly Caroline Harker who plays the children’s mother. She obviously knows where her husband is and keeps it from her children, a decision she struggles with convincingly. Jeremy Swift, who you may recognise as Mr Spratt from Downton Abbey, also makes a wonderful Mr Perks, the proud Station Master.
I enjoyed the fact that the show has been made slightly darker than both the book and the film. The story doesn’t focus on the father’s arrest, rather the complex effects it has on his three children. The audience is placed in the same position because we don’t know exactly what’s happened to their father either. We’re fed tit bits through the show but not enough to piece it all together, which could have been infuriating but I think it was well executed.
I still feel conflicted about this show. It’s definitely one of the best I’ve seen in a long while in terms of staging, but some of the key performances didn’t quite work for me. It’s so close and yet frustratingly far.
Written by guest reviewer Victoria Taylor.