This lavish, warm-hearted production of Edith Nesbit’s classic novel, now three years old, returns in triumph to Waterloo Station. Nesbit’s tale of three adventurous upper-middle class children suddenly thrust into a life of (relative) poverty and ripped from the city to a remote rural village is one of the very finest children’s stories of the 20th century, and it is served superbly by Mike Kenny’s adaptation and the classiest production values in town.
Joanna Scotcher’s design engulfs an entire platform in Waterloo’s abandoned Eurostar terminal, transforming it into the idyllic station of Oakworth. The audience are seated at either side of the track, which is ingeniously used for a series of moving stages and, of course, the great Victorian steam-train itself. By placing the railway in the very centre of the design, by making its magic the focus of every scene, we all experience the childish glee which the thundering iron beasts produce for Roberta, Phyllis and Peter. Even the landslide which triggers the story’s most iconic episode is rendered by an avalanche of collapsing luggage; we grow to love the railway as the children do, making the eventual entrance of the (wisely underused) locomotive a lot more stirring than it has any right to be.
All of this would be for nothing if the performances failed to convince, but fortunately director Damien Cruden has assembled a superb cast, and though the protagonists are clearly considerably older than their characters (roughly 10 years older I’d say) they remain both charming and convincing. Best of all is Marcus Brigstocke, who rises brilliantly to the unenviable task of filling shoes so fondly associated with Bernard Cribbins from the 1970 film version, and whose Mr Perks interacts brilliantly with the audience during the pre-set and interval.
Kenny’s script builds the story from the remembrances of the three children, which spar with one another in constant squabbling contradictions, sparking energetically through Nesbit’s episodic narrative. Each much-loved set piece brings with it another masterful, inventive staging, and by the time Amy Noble’s Roberta makes her climactic run into her father’s arms, the grown-ups are sobbing into their programmes and the children are spell-bound.
An inelegant system of radio mics is the only drawback to this entire production, with a slight time-delay garbling a number of scenes and giving characters the tone of a Tannoy announcement. Surely not a case of taking the railway station-theming too far, this problem really should be corrected soon, as barring it The Railway Children is a perfect, funny, inventive, uncynical delight.