Of all the children’s books and/or television adaptations that I devoured as a youngster, it is E. Nesbit’s works, including The Phoenix and the Carpet and Five Children and It, which have aged the least well. For me, it’s a combination of how episodic the novels tend to be – ideal for bedtime reading, maybe, less so when rereading as an older child (or even adult). The characters also tend to be quite flatly drawn, with each child possessing one character trait and one alone.
That The Railway Children rises above the Nesbit formula is down in no small part to the glorious film starring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins. And the stage adaptation, which has returned to its site-specific location on the old Eurostar platforms at Waterloo station, is as much a tribute to Lionel Jeffries’ wonderful movie as it to the original book.
If anything, the theatrical environment allows for an ever better evocation of the tales of the three Victorian children forced to relocate with their mother to Yorkshire from London when their father is imprisoned on suspicion of espionage, and the family income dries up. Amy Noble, Tim Lewis and Grace Rowe are childlike adults, retelling and recreating incidents from their younger life. This allows for a gentle nod to the film’s casting, where Jenny Agutter and Sally Thompsett was far older than their characters, but also partly explains away the episodic nature of the story. And Mike Kenny’s script is gloriously self-aware in places, not afraid to poke a little fun at itself without ever overstepping the line into self-parody.
As kindly porter Mr. Perks, Marcus Brigstocke is on great form, mixing comedy and pathos with a huge dollop of charm. Ably assisted by Elizabeth Keates as Mrs. Perks, it’s an accomplished performance from a performer not known for his stage work.
But however good the actors, they all make it quite clear that they know that the other visual elements are just as much the stars of the show. The stage itself, two thin traverse spaces running either side of a railway track upon which blocks of staging glide in and out, allows the many scene changes to take place without slowing down the pace of the story. But it is the arrival of the Stirling Single, a perfectly preserved steam locomotive, which produces the biggest applause from an audience which has been quite rightly enraptured throughout.