The story may be familiar and, perhaps, a mite sentimental for some tastes, there may be limited opportunities for great acting (though plenty for excellent ensemble playing), but York Theatre Royal’s brilliant staging of The Railway Children is a unique and delightful theatrical experience.
Director Damian Cruden has seized the opportunity to use the National Railway Museum with undisguised glee and unashamedly makes the railway the star of the show. The magnificent Victorian Stirling Single engine is trucked in in a haze of dry ice, with an elegant period carriage in tow. The audience sits along the length of two platforms, with authentically overhanging roofs, and follows the action as the various locations come and go along the track. Fifty local actors, in five teams of ten, play many parts, often as travellers; ushers in railway uniform or period dress and witty use of signage and advertisements re-create railway life circa 1906.
Clearly, given the above, designer Joanna Scotcher is a key figure in the production’s success, but so, too, are Craig Vear, with a dramatically realistic sound plot, and Christopher Madin, with an almost cinematic music score. Not surprisingly, Damien Cruden is supported by a team of four assistant directors for a play where action and speech from every point of the long trackside stage are perfectly integrated – all without the aid of a station announcer!
The text is almost overshadowed by the overall experience, but Mike Kenny’s adaptation of E. Nesbit’s story of three middle-class children pitched into poverty and rail-side adventure by their father’s wrongful imprisonment is cleverly done. The three narrate the story as their slightly older selves, with the advantages of quick cuts from potentially tedious scenes and adult actors in child roles without embarrassment. Parts of the play are a bit episodic, but the story-tellers are a useful bridge between present audience and past narrative, with a few well-chosen anachronisms to remind us that we are watching a play in 2008.
As the children Sarah Quintrell, Jonathan Race and Frances Marshall relate admirably to each other and the audience and keep the sentimentality pretty much in check, with Quintrell as Roberta making the most of the rare chance of a whole platform to race along before throwing herself into her father’s arms at the play’s emotional climax. Andrina Carroll, as Mother, retains the passion of the character alongside the sweetness and suffering and Marshall Lancaster brings a nicely understated drollness to the kindly porter, Mr. Perks.