The Railway Children, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Edith Nesbit’s 1906 novel The Railway Children saw a step change in her writing of previous novels for children, most notably of the trilogy of books featuring the siblings who first appear in Five Children and It. Compared to the slight but fun magical adventures of her previous books, The Railway Children touches on themes of the adult world and how it impinges on childhood life.

A long-running London production, which originally debuted at York’s Railway Museum, created a traverse staging, either side of a railway track – first at Waterloo’s disused Eurostar platforms, then in a dedicated theatre at King’s Cross. This staging allowed for the railway station metaphor to come through, even before the gimmick of a life-size steam train chundered slowly into view.

Needless to say, in Exeter Northcott Theatre’s touring production, there is no life-sized engine to provide a visual wow. Instead, designer Timothy Bird uses a combination of model railway (for distant views), sliding flats – for close-ups of the story’s principal passenger, referred to only as “The Old Gentleman” (Neil Salvage) – and video projections. None of these are, on their own, completely effective; together, the effect is almost comical at times. Indeed, when it appears that the cast is in on the joke of such presentation, the audience feels all the more forgiving of the show’s technical shortcomings.

Less impressive is the pacing and structure of Dave Simpson’s adaptation. While his central structure is given heft by placing the role of narrator in the hands of Perks, the kindly station master, the beginning of the story, in particular, is stodgy and slow-paced.

Initial scenes of the children’s father being taken away – a key reason for the family relocating to Yorkshire – are passed over in silhouette, in favour of a protracted and rather too literal recreation of his family’s first moments in their new home of Three Chimneys Cottage. Throughout, the scenes of Joy Brook’s mother talking with her three children around the dinner table reduce whatever momentum the show has managed to create.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when the family takes in Russian dissident Szczepansky (Will Richards). Nesbit’s Fabian political views are expressed in a long monologue, while the character whose moving and involving story lies prone on a bed in the railway carriage-inspired upper storey of the cottage. No attempt is made to tie in Szczepansky’s story with that of the family’s father, other than in dialogue, which renders this most intriguing side of Nesbit’s plotting inert.

The saving graces of this production are the young adults playing the children – most notably Katherine Carlton’s truculent Phyllis, always willing to undercut Millie Turner’s Bobby with a cutting remark. And the children’s interactions with Stewart Wright’s warm and engaging Perks do manage to reflect the heart within Nesbit’s original work.

Otherwise, though, while this production will bask in the glow of the love parents and children may have for both the original novel and its film adaptation, it offers little else.