reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 31 July
How do you stage a family classic novel by E Nesbit which has already been filmed both for television and cinema many times? Particularly when the show on question is a touring one and the story involves trains and railway tunnels – not to mention London and remote country locations.
If you’re Paul Jepson, Exeter’s Northcott Theatre director, you call in a designer who knows how to combine realistic stage settings with clever projections – Timothy Bird in this instance – and let Dave Simpson’s script find its own space in this turn of the 19th into 20th century story.
It works excellently, thanks to some strong performances delivered with just the right sort of conviction to make 21st century children and teenagers accept the manners and conventions of more than 100 years ago.
Millie’s Turner as Roberta (known as Bobbie) and Joy Brook as her mother, coping with her husband’s mysterious arrest, a total loss of London-based income and the necessity of living as cheaply and low-profile as possible in the countryside, are both thoroughly credible, as is Katherine Carlton has sister Phyllis. Turner is particularly good as showing a teenager on the cusp of womanhood and learning to cope with unexpected responsibilities.
As the old gentleman who acts as a kind of deus ex machina to the family, Neil Savage gives an object lesson in how to make every line tell, with the aid of miking. Younger actors, please take note. Stewart Wright as station-master Perks, Will Richards and Andrew Joshi give stalwart support. The backdrops are well-lit by Dominic Jeffrey and the train and tunnel sequences make their own applause-worthy impact.
Four and a half-star rating.
The Railway Children runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 5 August with matinées on 2 and 5 August. it can also be seen at the Derngate Theatre, Northampton between 19 and 24 September.
(reviewed at The Undercroft, Peterborough on 28 October)
Julie Mayhew has updated the classic E Nesbit adventure story The Railway Children from the early 20th century and Yorkshire to the Swinging Sixties and Cambridgeshire. Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter have acquired a stroppy teenage older sister, Cheryl, and the family’s enforced move is from Petersham to Peterborough.
If pre-First World War spy mania was a feature of the Edwardian period, then the 1960s saw a resurgence fuelled by the Profumo affair and the Burgess and Maclean scandal. Each of the siblings has to adjust in their different ways to the change in circumstances with their mother shielding them from any knowledge of what actually has happened to her husband and their father.
Poppy Rowley keeps the action moving with all four of her actors playing several parts as well as those of Bobbie (Lianne Harvey), Cheryl (Lily Howkins), Phyllis (Charlotte Ellen) and Peter (Lewys Taylor). Fashion-wise Howkins as Cheryl makes a good foil to Harvey’s older in understanding than in years Bobbie and Ellen’s ‘tween ages Phyllis. Taylor’s all-boy Peter is also a person in whom one can believe.
The set designed by Fiona Rigler is simple – two wooden frameworks which pivot as indoor locations change to outdoor ones. Her costumes, notably Cheryl’s booby-sox and white mini-dress and Bobbie’s Rive Gauche outfit of black jumper and leggings – very Juliette Greco – add their own dimension to the girls’ characterisation. A simple straw hat indicates their mother as they alternate in taking on the part.
You can’t quite describe this Eastern Angles production as site-specific; like any good story it has a chameleon quality. A local audience will pick up on places and areas which may be just names to outsiers. But anyone who lives in East Anglia is still experiencing the effects of Dr Beeching’s axe-swing across the region’s rail network. Plus ça change…
The Fletton Railway Children runs at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green Shopping Centre until 5 November.