One of my earliest memories is watching the classic Lionel Jeffries’ film version of The Railway Children with my dad, re-reading E Nesbit’s book or listening to the LP recording over and over. As a child, I was entranced by the adventures, despite sniffling away each time at the emotional connection between father and daughter, which my mother would remind me about for years afterwards!
So the opportunity to revisit a childhood favourite was too good to resist. I confess there was an element of trepidation – would the play live up to my recollections or would my fond memories become tainted? The eponymous performances in the 1970 film are so iconic, how could these young actors make the characters their own?
Well, they absolutely succeeded in embodying the characters themselves – and my warm reminiscences not only remain intact, they now have a welcome new addition!
The trio of Olivia Dutson (Roberta/Bobbie), Ollie Boyle (Peter) and Elodie Barber-Walkley (Phyllis/Phyl) have a brilliantly credible sibling relationship – tender, caring, loving, funny, squabbling, shifting allegiance between themselves according to the circumstance, all as brothers and sister naturally do.
Olivia has studied Drama and Theatre at Masters’ level, training with the RSC while at university – and it shows with the quality of her demeanour and diction, commanding stage presence and ability to capture every nuance of her character’s personality. Ollie is charismatically cheeky, brave, at times reckless, at times mature beyond his years as Peter steps up to the role of ‘man of the house’ in his father’s absence. Elodie has the most wonderfully expressive face, excellent timing and delivery, and is enchanting to watch from beginning to end. As the children are the heart of the action throughout the play, these young actors are the soul of the production. I’m excited to see what they do next.
There is strong support from the rest of the cast, particularly Sarah Kirkpatrick as their resilient yet genteel mother, Kris Hamilton-Brain as the affable Mr Perks, Peter Mitchell as the Old Gentleman and Cathy Angell as Mrs Viney, with a fabulously comic cameo from George Fleming as the Superintendent. David Rhodes is charming and authoritative as both the children’s father and the doctor, and is equally entertaining with his other unnamed appearances – but it feels a shame that the size of the cast means the ‘absent father’ keeps reappearing in other guises.
The play structure has the characters speaking directly to the audience, adding explanatory notes and filling in the gaps, before switching back to interacting with each other ‘in the scene’. This is not an easy skill to master – but the cast achieve a natural flow with finesse. Although there were a few minor hesitations on opening night, a good steady pace was maintained throughout without any prompting necessary, while the children injected a sense of urgency at the appropriate times.
Director and set designer Colin Hayman has not only overseen delightful performances but also a production which uses a lovely setting, great use of projected scenery and precise costumes and props, enhanced by atmospheric lighting and sound effects, to faithfully represent and honour E Nesbit’s classic family tale.
The Railway Children runs until Saturday 11 December, 7.30pm each evening (no performance on Monday 5 December). Get your ticket and climb aboard for a delightful and heartfelt ride.