The Railway Children, York Theatre Royal
National Railway Museum
Till Sept 5, 2015 @ 2pm & 7pm
Children in stories are often orphans, either without parents or separated from the adults in their lives.
In E Nesbit’s classic story, the three children are orphans in spirit, in that their father has been mysteriously removed to prison on a trumped-up charge of spying and treason. And the mother, mostly she is understandably distracted and not robust.
We never learn what machinations put Father in prison, as the story is told from the point of view of the three children, Peter (Izaak Cainer), Roberta (Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey) and Phylis (Beth Lilly) – the only characters given first names.
This is very much their story, seen through a blue-remembered lens.
After calamity hits, Mother (Andrina Carroll) and the three children have to move from London to a village in faraway Yorkshire, where new and harsher circumstances prevail, and adventures await for the children, many involving station master Mr Perks (a very likeable and, well, perky performance from panto favourite Martin Barrass).
There are many triumphs in this returning production, a truly theatrical experience in Mike Kenny’s adaptation, directed with wit, style and a daringly imaginative touch by Damian Cruden.
The story itself is a great strength: it’s a resonant tale, told through children’s eyes and mixing jolly japes with emotional moments that easily raise a tear. There is a scattering of good jokes too.
Kenny’s adaptation cleverly uses the pivotal trio as adults retelling an old family story.
One minute they are grown up and looking back, the next they are children living the moment: more satisfying and theatrical than splitting the roles between children and grown-ups.
In an enjoyably self-knowing touch, the children often address the audience directly, with other characters given glancing asides too.
A couple of moments represent theatre pure and exciting. First there is the train crash averted by the children waving torn red petticoats – which heralds the half-time arrival of the Great Western Railway Pannier Tank Loco 5775.
Gasps all round and what a thrill that sight is: a real engine gliding centre stage.
Next is the rescue of the boy with a broken leg. The tunnel where he is trapped is created from hanging black curtains through which the action is seen in a dim glimpse.
The staging works brilliantly, with the audience placed on either side of a long and deep railway track. As with In Fog And Falling Snow, the mobile stage is created in sections that are pushed along the track, allowing the actors to cross the divide.
The role of the Old Gentleman, who works a miracle for the family, falls to Michael Lambourne stepping in for Berwick Kaler, presently out of action due to a bad back.
In such an ensemble show it is unfair to pick out single roles and there isn’t a bad performance here. But in the end Cainer, Lilly and Nicholson-Lailey should take the honours, giving heart-warming turns as the siblings in steam.
This critic hadn’t seen The Railway Children before, so cannot compare this with the earlier productions, but on the strength of this performance recommends making tracks to the NRM right now.