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E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, adapted by Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden


This adaptation of The Railway Children was originally produced by York Theatre Royal in 2008. Following two successful seasons, it transferred to London’s Waterloo where it was awarded the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment in 2011, before touring internationally to vast critical acclaim. Currently being shown near King’s Cross station in a purpose-built theatre, the play has continued to enjoy huge success. On 28th March this year, a specially produced film of the play was shown nationally in four hundred cinemas.

The Railway Children is a wholesome and heart-warming tale. For adults watching the play, it will awaken memories of reading the book or watching the iconic 1970 film. Children will undoubtedly be enthralled by the spectacle of the steam train and the juxtaposition of the adult actors taking on the roles of Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis. It is clear that a lot of work has gone into remaining true to the pivotal points in Nesbit’s original story, creating an Edwardian atmosphere and feel-good family entertainment.

The play concentrates on how Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis became The Railway Children. This enables the plot to more succinctly focus on the children without expanding too much on sub-plots in the novel. As those familiar with the book will remember, the story opens with a glimpse into the idyllic lives of an upper-middle-class Edwardian family. Used to domestic staff and the constant attention of their mother while their much-adored father works in a lucrative position for the government, the children’s worlds are rocked when their father is wrongfully arrested and imprisoned. With no explanation from their mother, life quickly changes in every way. They move from their large London home to a smallholding in Yorkshire, where their mother must work to support them. The children find solace in visiting the local railway where they befriend an unlikely assortment of characters.

The adult actors playing the three children do an admirable job, harnessing the wide-eyed innocence of childhood with an appropriately over-enunciated Englishness reminiscent of Edwardian children of their class. In particular, the actor playing the youngest, Phyllis, brings a convincing mischievousness to the role. In a series of amusing asides, it is mainly Phyllis who communicates gaps in believability to the audience, such as the break for interval or actions depicting the passing of time.

The set is a masterpiece, with the stage bridging the railway tracks and including moving floors and, of course, the impressive steam train. Utilised to fantastic effect, the set seems to effortlessly transform from train station to train interior, from inside the children’s home at the ‘Three Chimneys’ cottage to inside a smoky railway tunnel. It is wonderfully directed by Damian Cruden to maximise space and height, light and dark. The scene where the children stop the train is especially aesthetically and sensorily pleasing; they stand in the abyss of the dark railway track, wearing pale clothes and waving red petticoats with the booming soundtrack of the approaching train.

In watching the play, it is important to remember the social and political landscape of the time. Nesbit has long since been recognised as a socialist and it’s plain to see this in themes running throughout the story. In the children’s relationship with Mr Perks, class boundaries are challenged and the play depicts this in a way which is not nostalgic for those divides. The importance of family, kindness and understanding are shown in captivating examples of hope and trust. With timeless themes and characters, this adaptation of The Railway Children will leave you with a warm and cosiness evocative of a bygone era.

Written by Keri Wilson

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