Bobbie and John – photo from Norwich Theatre Royal
I am not a sentimental old fool. Not at all.
Of course I know this tale. A prodigious early reader I had read the most well known E. Nesbit novel when very young – probably about eight years old. Long enough to have been ready for the definitive 1970 film version with Jenny Agutter, Bernard Cribbins and other memorable stars. The familiarity of several generations with this well crafted film sets a challenging benchmark for subsequent productions but also gives a deep seated understanding of the issues that the novel deals with.
The Nesbit novel addresses a number of moral and social issues very adeptly at a time when British society was enjoying a disappearing period of calm grace before being embroiled in the turmoil of the events unfolding across the world. The novel also touches on family dynamics in difficult circumstances, particularly the absence of a father. Nesbit lost her own father when she was just four years old.
There is much in the character of the mother (Joy Brook) that echoes Nesbit’s own life and attitudes – a devotion to an absent or problematical husband and a friendship with some rather racy Russians, for example. Yet the mother remains unnamed, identified only by her role towards her children.
Torn from comfortable London middle class life the mother and three children relocate out of financial necessity to a Yorkshire village with an adjacent train station featuring the charismatic station master Perks (Stewart Wright) who also serves as the narrator of the play.
The railway station, and the trains chuffing through it, feature strongly in the novel and in this charming production and in the lives of the teenage children at the heart of this tale. Director Paul Jepson harnesses the best of modern stage technology to bring us into this sometimes bustling, sometimes quiet station. The visual effects are really quite surprisingly good – no need to suspend your disbelief this week!
In the way of classic children’s novels the three ‘Railway Children’ have a freedom that would startle a modern parent and find themselves in all sorts of adventures, while always yearning for the return of their disappeared father. They are free of the burden of regular schooling, unlike their new friend John (Callum Goulden), son of Stationmaster Perks, a wilful young scallywag.
The three children are Roberta, or Bobbie (Millie Turner) Phyllis (Sally Geake tonight) and Peter (Vinay Lad). The key role is that made famous by Jenny Agutter, Bobbie. A young girl forced by circumstance into a maturity beyond her years as she increasingly takes a share of her mother’s burdens. Millie Turner gives us a fine and beautifully nuanced Bobbie, balancing the exuberance of a fifteen year old with the earnestness of an inexperienced young woman trying desperately hard to do the right thing.
Nesbit’s tale makes clear some of the suffocating, and to modern eyes incomprehensible, social mores that controlled Edwardian England. Self reliance is a virtue, charity is demeaning, unfairness to be coped with in resolute and dignified silence. Begging is definitely a no-no. And yet friendship and mutual support are at the heart of the story, and they help to resolve all difficult issues rather neatly.
The Railway Children is an accurate commentary on a time of rapid change, and this could give us a rather worthy but dull stage show. Not with this one. The twelve strong cast highlight the charm and positivity of the Nesbit original while the threats and challenges are all speedily resolved to a railway timetable of certainties and arrivals.
There is much humour in this show, for tonight’s audience some of the biggest smiles were for the delightful set and effects from designer Timothy Bird. While the show touches on some difficult issues such as espionage and false imprisonment dilemmas are neatly resolved in the manner of most Twentieth Century children’s fiction.
So am I sentimental in saying that I really enjoyed this show? Maybe, but the rich visual delight and period ambience of this stage greatly enhance the simple but moving plot of the Nesbit novel. If you know the story, and any of the well known film and TV versions, this production will not disappoint. If you are new to Nesbit, sit back and enjoy an accomplished depiction of a story that has been deservedly popular for over a century.
© Julian Swainson 2017
The Railway Children, Monday 31 July-Saturday 5 August at 7.30pm, and Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets £7-£21. Discounts for Friends, Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Signed and audio-described performance on Saturday 5 August at 2.30pm.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.