THE RAILWAY CHILDREN
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 11th September, 2017
With delicious irony, the fates delay the curtain up on this play centring around trains. Ha, ha, universe!
But when this production from Exeter Northcott Theatre does get under way, it’s full steam ahead for a lovely piece of theatre.
When their father leaves them under mysterious circumstances, siblings Roberta, Phyllis and Peter move from London with their mother to a quaint but humble country cottage near to a railway. As a distraction from their newfound poverty, the children take to waving at passengers on the trains, notably an ‘Old Gentleman’ who proves to be crucial to later plot developments. They also strike up friendship with stationmaster Perks and his eldest son, John.
On the surface, the show drips with Brexiteer nostalgia for an England that never existed. A closer look reveals this to be a place where people are nasty and suspicious when a foreigner in need enters their midst – but not E. Nesbit’s heroic children, whose only impulse is to help the poor man. It’s a place where people worry about the expense of seeing the doctor – he runs some kind of private health insurance club the locals chip in to.
Against the backdrop of this society, the three kids learn that sharing is best, that people have pride and there is a difference between gifts and handouts. I am gobsmacked; I had no idea the story was so political. Dave Simpson’s adaptation of the classic novel does not shy away from the author’s socialist leanings.
As Roberta, the eldest, Millie Turner captures the essence of a girl between youth and maturity, while as her siblings Peter and Phyllis, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton are spirited in their immaturity. The kids squabble but never lose their sense of decency and fair play.
The immensely likeable Stewart Wright narrates as the avuncular Perks; Callum Goulden does a nice comic turn as his tearaway offspring. Will Richards makes a striking Russian, expressive before he even utters a word in any language, while Andrew Joshi’s increasingly knackered doctor provides much of the broader humour. Joy Brook shines as the authoritative, firm but fair mother, all stiff upper lip and sacrifice for the sake of her children while espousing their Russian houseguest’s revolutionary ideals.
Timothy Bird’s set, costume and video designs not only evoke the Edwardian setting but add layers of artificiality, blending practical effects (a cut-out carriage is a hoot!) with projected animations, reminding us that this seemingly cosy place is not real. Director Paul Jepson ensures the energy of his performers is not overshadowed by the impressive technical features of the production, and adds effective bits of business to keep the actors to the fore: a slow-motion moment during Perks’s birthday party, for example – there is some lovely character playing by Andrea Davy as Perks’s wife.
The iconic moments are all here. Averting a rail disaster by ripping up Roberta’s red petticoat and waving it like mad. The touching reunion… Misty-eyed? Me? Must just be a bit of steam in my eye.
All right, I admit it, I am touched right in the feels and the needle on my nostalgia dial is in the red, but most of all I am struck that this tale from a more innocent age over a century ago speaks so strongly to us today and has such currency. There is a lot to be said for Englishness, for doing what is right, for supporting the underdog; just as there is a lot to be said against the nasty, narrow-minded, inward-looking, xenophobic attitudes of many English people today! In 2017! As if world events since the book first appeared mean nothing.
How much underwear do I have to tear up and wave around to stop this country going off the rails?