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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Railway Children

They were not railway children to begin with. I don't suppose they had ever thought about railways except as a means of getting to Maskelyne and Cook's, the Pantomime, Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud's. They were just ordinary suburban children, and they lived with their Father and Mother in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa, with coloured glass in the front door, a tiled passage that was called a hall, a bath-room with hot and cold water, electric bells, French windows, and a good deal of white paint, and 'every modern convenience', as the house-agents say. — Opening paragraph of The Railway Children
The Railway Children
Sarah Quintrell as Roberta, Louise Clein as Phyllis and Nicholas Bishop as Peter
(Photo: Simon Annand)
This exciting and touching, site specific production of The Railway Children in Waterloo's abandoned Eurostar Terminal will not only delight children but those who were brought up on Edith Nesbit's classic children's story or who remember tearfully witnessing Jenny Agutter's joy as she races towards her father returning home from wrongful imprisonment in the final scene of the 1970 film. Near tragedy befalls this Edwardian family when in a story akin to the French Dreyfus Affair, civil servant Father (Roger May) is accused of selling state secrets to the Russians. He is sent to prison and the family are left without an income other than what Mother's writing can bring in and so move to a smaller house in Yorkshire. The three children are the eldest, a responsible girl Roberta (Sarah Quintrell), the boy who wants to be an engineer, Peter, (Nicholas Bishop) and quirky Phyllis the youngest (Louisa Klein).

Reproduced is the railway line and a station in the Yorkshire countryside. The audience sit in either Platform One or Platform Two on either side of the railway tracks and the stage shifts and retains a moveable interest by means of wooden sliding platforms which join up to the central playing area so that action and characters can be wheeled in and out for variety. The imaginative and innovative staging gives the action a fluidity which adds to the interest. When a rockfall blocks the railway line, old suitcases and leather luggage tumble onto the track and so that the children may warn the oncoming train, the girls take off their scarlet flannel petticoats and rip them into red flags to wave at the engine driver to avert disaster.

Edith Nesbit was a socialist and even though the family of the Railway Children are poor they give shelter and care to a Russian refugee, Schepansky (Blair Plant). Values of loyalty and decency are emphasized even though there is an awkward moment when their kindness to Mr Perks the railwayman's (Marshall Lancaster) large family is almost misinterpreted as unwanted charity. Caroline Harker as Mother is mostly gracious but occasionally the burden of having no-one to share her troubles forms cracks which show in realistic tetchiness or tiredness. This was in an era when children were thankfully not privy to adult conversation and adult concerns. Mike Kenny's adaptation handles this story by allowing the children to narrate their story as adults looking back to their childhood in Yorkshire.

The star at the end of the first half is the arrival of the magnificent steam engine, the G class locomotive, Stirling Single, a thrilling and evocative moment. The play's producers have given us steam but fortunately, even in this enclosed space, the smoke and fumes from the train are minimal. A realistic looking ironwork railway bridge sits at one end of the platforms and at the other end are the station buildings. The Edwardian hats and suits are period enhancing as are the girls' broiderie trimmed aprons, all adding to the splendid spectacle of the bygone age of the romantic steam railway.

The performances are well honed. This production has been playing in York at the Railway Museum for a year and Damian Crofts has achieved a pacy direction as well as flawless performances from adults playing children. They convince us that they are sincere children without excesses of childishness. David Baron is the benefactor the children meet, "the Old Gentleman" whose influence and intervention changes everybody's fortunes.

The producers have just announced an extension to the booking period covering the Christmas break which should see The Railway Children as ideal family entertainment. If you have tickets allow plenty of time, half an hour, between arriving at Waterloo Station and reaching your seat before the start of the performance.

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The Railway Children
Written by E.Nesbit
Adapted by Mike Kenny
Directed by Damien Cruden

Starring: Sarah Quintrell, Nicholas Bishop, Louise Clein, Caroline Harker, Marshall Lancaster
With: Roger May, David Baron, Elizabeth Keates, Amanda Prior, Blair Plant, Steven Kynman, Grace Rowe, Mat Ruttle
Design: Joanna Scotcher
Lighting: Richard G Jones
Sound: Craig Vear
Composer and Musical Director: Christopher Madin
Running time: One hour 50 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0871 297 0740
Booking to 2nd January 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th July 2010 performance at Waterloo Station, London SE1 (Rail: Waterloo)

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