Ian Waller visits a bygone era of gentle manners and daring deeds in a classic children’s tale of The Railway Children
Beloved by generations of readers, E Nesbitt’s classic children’s tale The Railway Children is currently showing at the Theatre Royal Bath in what is an unashamedly faithful telling of a very traditional tale that will undoubtedly leave its many fans giddy with joy. Detailing a family’s move to a new home in Yorkshire following the mysterious disappearance of their father, the production combines traditional theatre sets with film-style backdrops to create the romance and atmosphere of the railway line and station that become the location for much of the plot.
OK, right from the start I admit that my only real knowledge of the plot is through half memories of the classic 1970s film adaptation starring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbens that always used to be wheeled out on Christmas afternoons. Now a fair bit older and accompanied by my wife and three children, aged 6, 10 and 11, I was keen to learn more about the enduring appeal of the tale.
In fact, watching it with my childern perhaps saved the evening for me. I have to admit that in the whole I simply didn’t enjoy the production. From the start I found the storytelling slow, the plot weak and the presentation of the characters somehow exaggerated and almost kitsch. Did the folk of that time really only either talk with such a clipped, high-pitched upper class accent or a northern drawl that make the cast of Emmerdale appear well to do? And then there’s the characters, all one dimensional and undemandingly stereotypical, none more so than the heroic Old Gentlemen, through whom everything good happens and yet we are offered nothing in the way of a back story apart from him being well-dressed and wealthy.
However – and this is really important – it turns out that my views were very much in the minority, with my family at least. My children all loved the production, amused by the dated mannerisms of the characters, carried along by the gentle meander of the plot and unquestioning of the holes in the story. And perhaps they had a point. To fully enjoy this production, you have to transport yourself back to the era of the story, a simpler time when the railways were an open door to travel and adventure, where spies really might exist and old school values were the norm.
And it’s through grasping this appreciation of the story that the production works. Suddenly the previously over-the-top characterisations become well placed, the gentle dip into the political discussions of the era more relevant and the naivity of the depiction representative of more innocent moment in time.
When it comes to the cast, Stewart Wright in the central role of Perks the station master and story-teller, stands out, bringing a charm and decency to his role, as well as injecting the rare moments of humour – particularly when trying to make himself understood by the non-English speaking fare dodger – with admirable wit and timing. Meanwhile, praise must go to the Millie Turner, Katherine Carlton and Vinay Lad as the siblings Roberta, Phyllis and Peter, who manage somehow to maintain their clipped accents and stilted mannerisms with admirable duty.
OK, so maybe by considering the production again I was either missing the point or simply coming at it from the wrong viewpoint. Certainly the applause as the curtain fell was enthusiastic and the smiles on the faces of the audience hard to miss. Perhaps it’s time to pay the original book an overdue visit and enjoy a visit to a very different time and place.
The Railway Children runs at the Theatre Royal Bath from 24-29 October