mon 10/08/2020

The Railway Children, Waterloo Station | reviews, news & interviews

The Railway Children, Waterloo Station

The Railway Children, Waterloo Station

This loving adaptation of Edith Nesbit's classic is a gorgeous holiday treat

Wholesome and sincere to a fault, Sarah Quintrell, Nicholas Bishop and Louisa Clein make a fine trio of railway childrenSimon Annard

"Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!" It’s a cry that has echoed through the childhood of generations of English children, reducing all but the very staunchest to tears. Whether encountered through Edith Nesbit’s book or the classic 1970 film, The Railway Children is a national touchstone, sitting alongside Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland at the core of a proper English upbringing. With the film celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, what better time to don your knitted tam o’ shanter and climb aboard the latest theatrical adaptation, currently hissing and chugging its way into the disused Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo Station.

"Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!" It’s a cry that has echoed through the childhood of generations of English children, reducing all but the very staunchest to tears. Whether encountered through Edith Nesbit’s book or the classic 1970 film, The Railway Children is a national touchstone, sitting alongside Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland at the core of a proper English upbringing. With the film celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, what better time to don your knitted tam o’ shanter and climb aboard the latest theatrical adaptation, currently hissing and chugging its way into the disused Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo Station.

It’s a miracle of storytelling balance, and the result is a pacy and recklessly fragmented narrative

The idea of staging The Railway Children in an actual station, complete with guest appearance from a mighty 66 tonne Stirling Single steam engine, was originally conceived for the National Railway Museum in Yorkshire. Here, in conjunction with York’s Theatre Royal, the innovative show has been a fixture for the past two summers, making its way down South for the first time this year.

Splitting its audience across two facing platforms at Waterloo (charmingly, tickets are marked not “Stalls” or “Circle”, but “Platform One” or “Platform Two”), the production relies on the slickest and most precise of technical teams to manoeuvre sliding wooden platforms up and down the track, creating a series of fluid and moveable stage spaces. It’s a simple concept, but one that gives the show a constant sense of movement and pace, catering equally well to both the swift scene-shiftings and the unusually long, thin blocks of audience.

Making a virtue of the three adult actors who take the roles of Bobby, Phyllis and Peter, Mike Kenny’s elegant script narrates the familiar story from a remove of some years; the children at once look back on their adventures (engaging in constant, though by no means unpleasant, meta-theatrical commentary of the, “You tell them.”/ "No, you tell them.” variety) and recreate them.

It’s a miracle of storytelling balance, and the result is a pacy and recklessly fragmented narrative that shoots along, pitched somewhere between wide-eyed Famous Five earnestness and gently self-conscious mockery. Rendering the aggressively wholesome, sincere to a fault Edwardian narrative in a way both appealing and accessible to contemporary children (and their parents) is a challenge lovingly embraced by Kenny’s script and Damian Cruden’s direction. The result is a classic period piece spiced with a just big enough dash of witty self-regard.

A small cast of adult principals and children’s chorus take on all roles with eye-wateringly declamatory earnestness – really the only way to tackle such material. Sarah Quintrell’s Roberta is all pluck and sweetly turned feistiness, supported by Nicholas Bishop as the eager and often misguided Peter. It is Louisa Clein’s dizzy Phyllis (pictured above with Quintrell and Bishop) however – played for laughs – who gets all the best lines. With no discernable membrane between thought and speech, her startling questions and droll, deadpan observations are delivered with an honest insouciance that is hard to resist.

The Szczepansky episode – the distinctly unusual ideological core of the book – is bravely given extended and loving treatment. The hot issues of asylum and immigration are highlighted (but never forced), emerging organically from Nesbit’s own storytelling, striking as ever in their prescient wisdom. Less successful however is a fleeting gesture of proto-feminism from Mother (Caroline Harker) which, however apposite, drew a laugh for the wrong reasons.

If there is a fault to find with this beautifully conceived piece, it is simply the underuse of the steam engine itself. A gorgeous beast in black and green, its first entrance during the tense landslide episode had a healthy proportion of the adult audience welling-up, so immediate was its effect. Making just one other brief appearance, the train left me, and I'm sure others, wanting to see more of this rare and exciting creature, whatever the difficulties of integrating it into the action and stage space.

The real strength of this production is its sincere affection for Nesbit’s story. By making little concession to the world or frame of reference of the contemporary child, its period magic rings potently true. The Railway Children is as good an excuse as you’ll find all summer to borrow a child (or scrape your own off the Wii) and relive nostalgic memories.

Watch The Railway Children theatre trailer



A gorgeous beast in black and green, its first entrance during the tense landslide episode had a healthy proportion of the adult audience welling-up

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Comments

This is a really fantastic show.

I too thought the steam train would be the star but it was very underused. I initially doubted adult actors playing the roles of the children but it was so well done I was completely taken in. It's a fantastic and I'd love to see it again as soon as possible.

AMAZING SHOW - LOUISA CLEIN IS BRILLIANT AND SO FUNNY AS PHYLLIS, AS IS SARAH QUINTRELL PLAYING ROBERTA. A wonderful night for adults and children. WE LOVED IT!!

i went to see the railway children with my school and i thought it was the most amazing play i have ever seen. Mind you i haven't seen many plays but if i had it would be the best! Kind regards meleanie

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