Edith Nesbit’s literary classic, The Raiway Children, has enthralled young readers for generations and now it’s an engaging stage production, hoping to delight a whole new audience.
The Exeter Northcott production is chuffing its way around the UK and this week has pulled into the Wycombe Swan.
For bibliophiles like me, who grew up consuming vast quantities of children’s books, it is a delight to see Nesbit’s story about three youngsters playing near a rural railway line (can you imagine that passing health and safety approval today?) come to life.
But – and it breaks my heart to say it – modern youngsters, growing up with tablets and computer games, find little pleasure, or have the concentration to devour classic literature.
Bedtime stories are increasingly rare with the frantic pace of life parents now endure, schools are dropping the classics and library visits are dwindling.
I looked around the Swan theatre to see groups of youngsters more interested in their popcorn and pick’n’mix than following the story while their parents, and me, loved every minute of the show.
Their only reaction came with the sudden appearance of the trains, large and small, which occasionally scurried across the stage.
This is a magical and nostalgic show, evoking a misty rose-tinted Edwardian era when it was perfectly acceptable to proposition elderly strangers and forgo school for romping in the countryside.
“We must go down to the railway and explore!” exclaims 15-year-old Bobby (Millie Turner). I can imagine parents issuing stern warnings on the way home from the theatre not to follow her suggestion.
Stewart Wright’s endearing stationmaster, Albert Perks, a father-of-seven himself (and only 35!) acts as narrator and a father figure to Roberta, Phyllis and Peter, whose own dad has mysteriously disappeared, plunging the family into poverty.
Dave Simpson’s adaptation keeps true to the original episodic story which was first serialised in the London Magazine in 1905.
But this creates its own problems as the story becomes split into chapters as we follow the youngsters enjoying one adventure after another.
The very quaint language and posh accents of the trio cause endless merriment to Perks’ oldest kid, the mischievous John (nicely played by Callum Goulden) who is socially, culturally and geographically from the other end of the spectrum.
But this heart-warming tale, about three fish out of water, high jinxs and spying, is beautifully delivered by the cast.
The video backcloth offers a fresh element to the set design although I’m not sure it entirely works. The problem with staging a story featuring giant steam trains is how to portray them on stage. You can’t just roll on the Flying Scotsman.
But the trains that do appear cause the audience to break out into the giggles, which is no bad thing.
The Railway Children runs at Wycombe Swan until Saturday.
Remaining UK Tour Dates
Tue 15 – Sat 19 Aug, CANTERBURY Marlowe Theatre
Tue 22 – Sun 27 Aug, MALVERN Theatres
Tue 29 Aug – Sun 3 Sep, RICHMOND Theatre
Mon 11 – Sat 16 Sep, COVENTRY Belgrade Theatre
Tue 19 – Sun 24 Sep, NORTHAMPTON Royal & Derngate
Thu 26 Sep – Sun 1 Oct, BROMLEY Churchill Theatre
Tue 3 – Sun 8 Oct, LEICESTER Curve Theatre
Thu 12 – Sun 15 Oct, SOUTHAMPTON Mayflower Theatre
Tue 24 – Sun 29 Oct, BATH Theatre Royal
Tue 31 Oct – Sun 5 Nov, AYLESBURY Waterside Theatre.
Charming and beautifully staged, this touring production of The Railway Children evokes an era of innocence and nostalgia.