Smoke hangs in the air above the piles of vintage suitcases that lie at the entrance to an Edwardian railway station recreated indoors, complete with platforms one and two, in which the audience are seated, facing each other across open rail tracks. This is the evocative location within the National Rail Museum, which is the setting for York Theatre Royal’s returning production of The Railway Children.
An influx of characters in full period costume - flowing cloaks and top hats (for the men), tailored, puff-shouldered jackets and long skirts (for the women) along with the last few members of the audience, authentically bring to life the lively bustle of a railway station.
Based upon E. Nesbitt’s novel, The Railway Children is a tale of a wealthy city family thrust into poorer circumstances in the small Yorkshire village of Oakworth, when their father is imprisoned after being wrongly accused of spying on the Government. With the help of a host of friendly neighbours, stationmaster Mr Perks, and a benevolent Old Gentleman whom the children spot on board a steam engine whilst on their daily trips to wave at it passing by, they manage to craft a life for themselves.
For the second year in a row York Theatre Royal has turned out an absolute classic, entertaining and vibrant, that uses the innovative set, designed by Joanna Scotcher to its full potential. Sliding ledges that join the two platforms are pushed above the train tracks by stagehands in black caps and waistcoats, and upon which the action of The Railway Children takes place. These are withdrawn to allow for the spectacular arrival of what is York Theatre Royal’s theatrical coup, Stirling Single, the locomotive built in 1870, gliding between the platforms at moments of high tension.
The childish quibbling of the siblings, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis is brilliantly captured to comic effect, by respectively Sarah Quintrell, Jonathan Race and Frances Marshall, Marshall in particular’s wide-eyed, daft nature drawing laughs from the audience with ease. Her character’s charming silliness is further a perfect vessel for Mike Kenny’s artful inclusion of the audience at moments of theatrical trickery, with Phyllis often blithely addressing the audience, “You might want to remember this part!”
Newcomers to the production, in the form of Mr and Mrs Perks (Martin Barrass and Kali Peacock) adeptly join the original cast, Barrass’ deft timing and hilarious characterisation a neat counterpart to his onstage wife’s under-the breath and cutting - but undoubtedly fond - remarks.
Director Damian Cruden perfectly balances the sombre moments, fitting for the portrayal of the family’s struggle in the absence of their father, with light, comic touches that are naturally deployed to delight the audience. In his confident hands, Kenny’s adaptation is an unquestionable success.