Melissa Blease reviews The Railway Children, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Sunday 29 October
Sticky buns for tea and starched pinafores; little girls with ribbons in their hair, little boys wearing felt caps; children who always said “please,” “thank you,” and “how do you do?” at the perfect juncture; poverty-stricken families who viewed the very notion of receiving any form of charity as a cause for shame – ah, how times have changed since Edith Nesbit penned her classic tale about a formerly well-to-do family with a complicated back story who are forced to relocate to the Yorkshire countryside.
Today, good manners, Sunday best clothes, reliable train schedules and tea time treats at four o’clock are pretty much all filed under the heading marked “nostalgia” (the same can’t be said, unfortunately, about how rich people make poor people feel). But still, The Railway Children – which has never been out of print since its first publication in 1906 – continues to top the children’s book bestseller charts, while numerous film and TV adaptations dominate the ratings every time they’re rescreened including, of course, the highly-regarded Lionel Jeffries 1970 film version, starring Jenny Agutter.
We are, of course, firmly in Golden Age territory here, transported back to a time and place when rural northern England was apparently an idyllic place to live, and children roamed freely in the countryside unencumbered by threats of perverts in the woods or the social services checking up on why they never attended school, let alone questioning why they chose to play so close to (or even on) a railway line. But if you can suspend such cynicism for a couple of hours, The Railway Children is charming escapism at its very best.
Due to circumstances that, for the first half of the play, remain mysterious, a family (Mother, Phyllis, Peter and Roberta – we never actually need to know their surname) are forced to move from London to a cottage near a railway station in Yorkshire while they wait for their father to return from wherever it is he’s disappeared to.
And despite dropping down the social ladder a couple of rungs from London comfortable to borderline rural poor they manage to create a rather nice life for themselves too, with Mother writing children’s stories while the kids make friends, hang out at the station and have several exhilarating escapades, including befriending a kindly old gentlemen who passes by on the train each day; rescuing and temporarily fostering Russian dissident Mr Szczepansky; caring for the kindly old gentleman’s grandson when he breaks his leg during a paper chase; throwing a birthday party for the station master and saving the lives of dozens of passengers by alerting a train to a landslide thanks to resourceful use of petticoat power courtesy of quick-thinking Roberta. Gosh, it’s all jolly exciting stuff indeed. And it’s all put together in such a charming way that suspending the aforementioned cynicism is easy.
Clever staging manages to make the overall feel of this production as traditional as the storyline – I can’t have been the only member of the audience to breathe a sigh of relief that this isn’t one of those “brave reimaginings” of a comfortable classic presented in a stark, white-walled box while our senses are bombarded with hip-hop music to represent the sound of a speeding locomotive.
The action seamlessly shifts between detailed recreations of Three Chimneys Cottage, the railway station, the countryside and the village all in entirely recognisable, trad format, with occasional integrated video projections putting the big, beautiful stars of the show (the steam trains themselves) in the spotlight.
The children (strong, characterful performances from Millie Turner as the almost-but-not-quite-grown-up Roberta, Vinay Lad as exuberant little brother Peter, and Katherine Carlton as spiky little Phyllis) are delightfully engaging, and both Joy Brook and Stewart Wright as anchor characters Mother and station master Perks subtly develop as the story gathers speed.
Younger viewers will be blissfully unaware that, running beneath the delightful affability of the whole saga, there’s a layer of political messaging that reflects the tumoltuous political climate at the time the book was written: if you want to dig really deeply you’ll discover references to the Dreyfus Affair, Communist/Tsarist sympathisers, friendships forged across the class divide and questions around the unfairness of privilege.
But then again, to take The Railway Children this seriously would be akin to looking for ‘hidden’ messages about gender, democracy and community care in a pantomime – so don’t do it. Instead, sit back, relax and allow yourself to be taken on a first class journey to a land that time forgot.