As the summer holidays draw to an end and the prospect of a long hard slog until Christmas beckons fear not – consolation is at hand in the utterly delightful and uplifting “The Railway Children” at Richmond Theatre. This production of Edith Nesbit’s 1905 children’s classic is a show that will appeal to all ages and all the family.
The director Paul Jepson and the designer Tim Bird have put together a wonderfully entertaining and engaging show. The set design is pure genius. Using a combination of printed backdrops and pre-filmed projections the scenes involving the train are brilliantly realised. Another clever trick is the use of carriage doors held by the actors as they walk across the stage, simple but very effective. So hats off to Paul and Tim for a highly innovative and creative set.
As well as a wonderful set this production has a very strong cast. Stewart Wright is just right for the role of the station master Mr Perks. From his opening remarks the audience knows instinctively that they are in safe hands. He sets the scene in a few words explaining that a posh family in London have lost their father (just as Edith Nesbitt had lost her father when she was just a girl of 4 years old) and have no money, so they have had to go north to Yorkshire to live modestly at Three Chimneys cottage. The next scene introduces Mother (Joy Brook) and her three children Phyllis, Peter and Roberta known as Bobby. Joy Brook as Mother captures exactly the mix of stoicism and despair as she puts a brave face on things and keeps turning negatives into positives. Every time the children especially Phyllis (Katharine Carlton) complain she, like a Jujitsu master, rolls with the falls and turns a minus into a glorious plus. Arriving at the station Phyllis shrieks “No Cabs” to which Mother replies “…it’s lovely walking in the fresh country air”. The selfish Phyllis is contrasted with the selfless Roberta (brilliantly portrayed by the wonderful Millie Turner), who understands others and is always putting others first.
The introduction of Mr Perks’ son, John takes the Railway Children into deeply comic waters. A cross between Billy Bunter and Just William, John (wonderfully captured by Callum Goulden), is a comic masterpiece. He lights up every scene he appears in. With his pea shooter and high jinks he injects fun and laughter into every scene. The play makes much of the contrast between the Yorkshire spoken by Perks and John and the southern posh English of Roberta, Peter (Vinay Lad, who calls everything “spiffing”) and Phyllis. John calls sandwiches “Butties” and says “Ta Ra”, “Hey Up” and “Any Road”, whereas the Southerners say “Horrid”, “Rather” and “Jersey.” It is classic North versus South culture wars, but done in such a delightful way that one enjoys the contrast and humour.
These four children spend their days hanging around the station waving as the trains go by. Mother becomes ill and the family can’t afford to pay for the doctor (Andrew Joshi who visits the family three times – again the theme of three!) or the long list of items she needs to recover. At this point the family dilemma and the trains come together. Roberta has the idea that the Old Gentleman (Neil Salvage) who they wave to every morning and who waves back will help them. So they make a banner and raise it as the train goes by and manage to hand him a note. The Old Gentleman in true Dickensian style a la Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist, agrees to help. He sends a hamper from Fortnum & Mason, of course and so Mother gets better. This is the start of a relationship between the Old Gentleman and the Family that encompasses four consecutive episodes. He rescues Mother and then the Russian writer Szczpansky (Will Richards), his grandson, the grammar school boy Jim, culminating in the finding and reuniting of Father with Mother and the three children.
“The Railway Children” evokes an England that no longer exists and perhaps never did but so what? It’s a masterpiece of both children’s literature and the English stage and screen. It evokes a powerful nostalgia for a time of community and fellow feeling that is sorely needed in our anonymous and lonely world. It is both funny and deeply moving.
I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Get the Distirct line or London Overground to Richmond Station to get in the Mood for a wonderful ride on the train now calling at Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Sowerby Bridge, Halifax, Low Moor, Bradford and New Pudsey.