‘The Railway Children’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by December 10, 2017

‘The Railway Children’ was written in 1905 by English poet and author, E Nesbit; avoiding her first name of ‘Edith’ as she was writing at a time when women were not ‘real authors’. Nesbit was born in 1858 in Kennington in Surrey, an area now classed as central London.

Nesbit wrote about 60 books, in a tender and caring style for children, and yet she was a Marxist, and co-founder of the Labour Party’s Fabian Society. Her desire to please children probably came from the fact that her father died when she was only 4 yrs. old, and that she had to spend her childhood living in France, for her sick sister’s wellbeing.

As a teenager, Nesbit lived near Halstead in Kent, and played near the Chelsfield to Knockholt railway line. It was this location that inspired her to use the setting for ‘The Railway Children’, however, Nesbit was accused (probably rightfully) of plagiarising the plot and adventures from Ada J. Graves’ book ‘The House by the Railway’. Graves’ book was serialised in a magazine a year before ‘The Railway Children’ first appeared.

At 18, Edith found herself pregnant to a man called Hubert Bland. To her horror, she discovered he had already got another two girls pregnant. When Nesbit married Bland, he insisted that one of his pregnant girls should become their housekeeper – which she did, only to become pregnant again to him 13 yrs. later.

Nesbit bestowed each of her books to her children, with ‘The Railway Children’ being dedicated to her first son Paul. Edith’s second husband, Thomas Tucker was a Captain of the Woolwich Ferry. Being a lifelong smoker, Nesbit died of cancer in 1924.

 

This delightful and much loved, 2-hour play can be seen at the Harbour Theatre, within Camelot, 16 Lochee Street, Mosman Park, until Sunday 10th December. All the weekday shows are at the earlier time of 7.30 pm.

The scene: From the moment you enter the theatre there is no doubt as to the era, and the play’s theme. The station master, in full uniform, is selling the tickets – they were in the style of authentic, 100-year old train tickets. The ticket inspector blew a whistle to announce that the auditorium doors were open, and the tickets were punched as we entered.

The open stage showed a Yorkshire, country railway station about 1900.

The set: The stage has a metre-wide trench running from the audience to the rear of the stage; this is the railway track. On one side of the stage is Oakworth Station, complete with signal box and ticket office. On the other side of the stage is the area around the family home ‘Three Chimneys’. A substantial wooden bridge over the track, Haworth Bridge, is at the rear of the stage, joins the two. The railway track leads to ‘infinity’, this clever effect is only a tiny part of the great artwork by Melissa Bassett. Jane Sherwood’s set design was inventive and ingenious.

The set construction was of a very high standard, thanks to Brian Mahoney, Phil Redding, Alan Morris, Ray Egan, Tina Barker, Julie Mackay, David Eggleston, Ian Culvert, and Matt Cuccovia.

The stage manager, Pauline Laurence and her assistant SM, Rachel Hunter, had a large cast to control, making entrances from the auditorium and the stage. There was just the right amount of train smoke, how often does an audience member suffocate and die in a massive fog? With the stage having very shallows wings area, arranging the movements of some quite large props had to be well planned. The antique and rare props were found by Grace Hitchin, Jane Sherwood, Stirling Players, and Pauline Laurence. Stagehand Brett Muller took care of the rail track, with minimal disturbance to the continuing acting.

The complex lighting design and operation was by Jane Sherwood, with the intricate soundscape design – excellent train effects – with operation by Vanessa Gudgeon, Jane Sherwood, and Nicholas Wilding.

 

      Sitting on the Oakworth station platform, playing with a toy train are a young boy, Peter and his older sister, Roberta. Watching over them is their mother (Carmen Dohle) who is carrying the new baby, Phyllis. The station master, Mr Perks (Jarrod Buttery) blows his whistle, the train’s steam rises, and we are taken forward 10 years. The youngsters disappear, and the three, Waterbury teenagers step up. They are Bobbie (Nikki Di Camillo), Peter (Liam Crevola) and young Phyllis (Kaitlin Okely), who explain how they became known as the Railway Children.

       Talking straight to the audience, the three children start to recall their story.

       At their well-to-do home in London, father (Sam Rodwell) is talking to Peter about his model train engine, when there is a knock on the front door. The butler (Matt Ibbotson) announces that two strangers have called to speak to father. After a while, the father whispers to their mother, before inexplicably leaving home. The next morning, mother asks the children to behave, and not to ask any question about their Dad. The children become aware that the food portions are getting less, and that the staff are being paid off. They were pleased to see the miserable cook go, but were sad to lose Tweenie, the in-between maid (Freya Prall).

        Eventually, their mother announces that they are going to move north and live in the country, in a white house near the railway line. They arrive to find that due to a mix up, the lovable maid, Mrs. Viney (Ann Speicher) has not prepared any food for them. Next day the pantry is filled, and the children set off to inspect the railway station. Being extra cold at home, Peter takes some steam engine coal from the station yard, however, the Station Master catches him and quickly learns of their financial problems. He talks to his wife, Mrs Perks (Em Rose) who, having had a large family, looks out some old clothes. Two of the Perks children, Charlie (Charlie Motbey) and his sister, Elsie (Lakeesha Motbey), give their new friends some old toys.

      Regularly, every morning, the children wave to the passing trains, and to the same old gentleman (Jim Davies), who always waves back. They fantasise that this man knows their father, and will take their love to him.

      When their mother becomes ill, and they cannot afford the doctor’s bill, Bobbie decides to paint ‘Look out at the station’ on a good bedsheet, and wave it at the morning train. At the station, Phyllis meets the train and slips a note to the old gentleman as the train leaves. That evening, Mr Perks delivers a large box, filled with the supplies their mother requires to recover. Their mother is furious, but grateful.

      When their mother finally recovers from her illness, they celebrate Bobbie’s birthday, only to realise that their mother is very upset by their hardship. Bobbie takes Peter’s broken toy to the station, seeking help from the railway workers. Just as the kindly fireman, Jim (James Matthews) repairs it, the train arrives, and a foreign man staggers off, he is weak and confused. A passenger (Julie Mackay) consoles him. The stranger is Mr Szezpansky (Gavin Ward), a Russian who does not speak English, and has lost his family’s address.

       On their run, a school hare and hounds race, the runners (Alexis Mercer, Brianna Amos) find that there has been a land slide. Can they warn the Railway Children in time?

 

The costumes were wonderful, every detail was correct for 1900. Even the extras were fitted out immaculately, thanks to the wardrobe team of Grace Hitchin and Jane Sherwood.

The programme cover and eye catching posters were very well designed by Docuprint.

Mike Kenny’s adaption of this story, has the railway children telling their story direct to the audience. Although presented clearly, and with plenty of emotion, it was as though being read to from a book – and they even referred to the ‘theatre’. This gave a smile for the adults, but would break the magic for the children, by reminding them that the Railway Children were actors and not ‘real’. I would have preferred straight dialogue.

The director, Jane Sherwood, is well known for her generosity in giving a break to new or semi-retired actors. In this play, half of the cast were keen novices to the main stage, or had not appeared for a very long time. Occasionally the lack of experience showed slightly, but with an audience mainly of youngsters, this was the ideal time to let everyone have a chance. The overall flow of the show was very good, with excellent pace and the story clearly depicted. The style of acting was a slightly unusual, because of the reduced dialogue. Although I did not particularly like this genre, I suspect that it may have helped the children in the audience understand the story better.

The main actors were all flawless, but my choice of the performers that ticked all the boxes were Kaitlin and Lakeesha who both had that extra stage presence.

A very problematic play to stage, with numerous technical difficulties to overcome, but this was a wonderful production that had the enthusiastic audience leaving with broad grins. Congratulations all concerned.