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Review Round-up: Railway Children Pulls In

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Damian Cruden’s epic site-specific staging of The Railway Children chugged into Waterloo Station this week (13 July), where it stays until 4 September 2010.

Mike Kenny’s adaptation of the classic novel brings a modern touch to E Nesbit’s themes whilst remaining an endearing story about “the romance of railtravel”. Rewritten as a memory tale, the play follows the lives of Roberta (Sarah Quintrell), Peter and Phyllis as they come to terms with their father’s unfair imprisonment and learn to love life next to a railway.

The production, which was first presented by York Theatre Royal at the National Railway Museum in York in 2008, boasts a set featuring the old Gentleman’s saloon carriage from the 1970 film version, and also features a period steam train - the 'Stirling Single' - from the National Railway Museum.

Billed as a treat which “never for a moment runs out of steam”, could The Railway Children prove to be this summer’s big family theatre hit?

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “It’s an engaging and occasionally thrilling occasion – especially when the gleaming green locomotive puffs into view along the railway tracks – but there are a few narrative loose ends...There’s a lack of real charm, too, in the acting, despite the best efforts of Sarah Quintrell, Marshall Lancaster and Caroline Harker … The children’s adjustment to new circumstances, bordering on poverty, is nicely framed … And their scrapes with the errant Russian dissident…, their heroism in averting an accident by waving flags improvised from the girls’ red petticoats, and their friendship with the mysterious Old Gentleman (David Baron) … ; all has the stamp of a vintage Trevor Nunn production without the emotional heft or killer staging … The show is an admirable feat of technical engineering, and could easily catch on as a recession-defying summer treat … there’s even a toy train for little’uns to board.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “Writer Mike Kenny has done an excellent job in adapting the book for this York Theatre Royal production, while remaining true to the original. Nesbit’s themes of espionage, one-parent families, and concern for outsiders and the dispossessed … still seem strikingly modern. Damian Cruden’s production has great freshness and ingenuity, using blasts of steam and thunderous sound effects to suggest the passage of steam trains, while the landslide in which the children wave the girls’ red petticoats to avert disaster is presented with great theatrical panache … Even if they couldn’t quite eclipse my fond memories of Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett and Bernard Cribbins in the 1970 film. Nevertheless, as a summer holiday treat The Railway Children is going to take some beating.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Site-specific theatre takes on a new meaning with this glorious adaptation of E Nesbit's 1906 children's classic … Kenny's version brings out Nesbit's radicalism, while the staging is intensely imaginative. Joanna Scotcher's design places the audience on facing platforms between which the action whizzes back and forth … The coup de theatre, however, is the arrival of the green-and-gold, 66-ton Stirling Single locomotive to remind one of a lost age when railway engineering was a source of pride and pleasure. Once or twice the story cuts corners, but the production's virtue is the actors are never upstaged by the impressive effects … Sarah Quintrell is a model of crisp common sense as Roberta; Caroline Harker as the mother reveals occasional tetchiness beneath the good samaritan; and Marshall Lancaster as the porter blends kindliness with the prickliness of someone who won't be patronised. It's a story about class, community and treating others with respect, and, in Cruden's excellent production, it never for a moment runs out of steam.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “On the right tracks … : The former Eurostar terminal at Waterloo now offers a family-friendly journey of an entirely different kind, back to the Edwardian England of E. Nesbit’s much-loved 1906 children’s book. The staging alone is a marvel, with a real steam train chugging along at key moments and huge blocks of the stage floor being shunted about the deep ravine of the track … A delightfully fluid production from Damian Cruden, and the adaptor Mike Kenny has sensibly kept tinkering to a minimum, introducing just one clever tweak whereby the three children are presented as adults looking back on their younger selves. This device works splendidly … and the adult actors playing the children, Clein in particular, are magnificent bundles of energy shot through with exactly the right amount of melancholy introspection. Long may The Railway Children’s train stay in this platform, but after its eventual departure, I suggest that this wonderful space be given over instantly to a production of Brief Encounter.”
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