by Lynn on May 8, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Roundhouse, 255 Bremner Blvd. at the base of the CN Tower. Written by Mike Kenny. Based the book by E. Nesbitt. Directed by Damian Cruden. Designed by Joanna Scotcher. Lighting by Richard G. Jones. Composed by Christopher Madin. Sound by Craig Vear. Starring: Kate Besworth, Emma Campbell, John Gilbert, Natasha Greenblatt, Harry Judge, Doug MacLeod, Kelly Penner, Laura Schutt, Craig Warnock, Marilla Wex, Richard Sheridan Willis.

“The Railway Children” are Roberta, Peter and Phyllis. Initially they lived a comfortable servant-filled life with their parents in London. That changed one night when two men came to the house to arrest their father. He worked for the British Home Office and was accused of selling classified government documents to another government.

Life becomes very tough for the children and their mother. The family moves to a small village in Yorkshire. The mother scrapes out a living by writing and selling her stories. The mother quietly keeps her depressed feelings to herself, but her astute children know something is wrong.
The children spend their time at the village railway station and along the tracks watching and waving at the trains that pass by. They are particularly fond of the 9:15 am train because of an ‘Old Gentleman’ on it who always waves back.

They also befriend Mr. Perks the station porter and get into prickly situations. From innocently steal some coal from the station to heat their always cold house; to warning an oncoming train of rocks and debris on the tracks, thus preventing a terrible pile-up; to saving an injured person in the train tunnel, all of it is done with the sweet innocence of youth.

Mike Kenny’s script is true to the spirit and heart of The Railway Children, the beloved book by E. (Edith) Nesbitt which she wrote in 1906. It was common for a woman writer at the time to use her first initial instead of her full first name in order to improve her chances of having her book published, by making people think the author was a man. Nesbitt didn’t shy away from challenging issues in her book. She believed that women could and should have any job they wanted, including those usually associated with men. In the play the father echoes that sentiment when Phyllis wants to be a fireman when she grows up and he supports her wish. Nesbitt championed the single mother, as the children’s mother was the sole provider. The play is not just about children at impish play. There is also seriousness and depth.

One of the many charms of this highly theatrical entertainment is that a special theatre has been built to suggest a train station of the early 1900s. The audience sits on either side of the train tracks with the action happening on a moveable platform over the tracks and on the sides of it.

The Railway Children is directed with vivid imagination and wonderful creativity by Damian Cruden. He and his creative team have fitted out that space with keen attention to detail, from the furnishings, to the costumes even down to the squeak in Mr. Perks’s shoes. Cruden is especially effective in creating scenes that are very moving, for example, the father being lead off to prison on the moving platform as it disappears into the mist. Most important Cruden uses the most powerful tool in the theatre, the audience’s imagination, to great effect.

Often a train speeds through the station. There is a loud rumble that gets louder and louder as the train nears. Light flickers as the train races by, its whistle piercing the air, smoke shoots out as it leaves the station. Most of the time there is no train. Just sound, light, smoke and our ability to imagine it.

Adult actors play the three railway children but not in that cheesy over-exaggerated way. Natasha Greenblatt as Roberta, Kate Besworth as Phyllis and Harry Judge as Peter play their roles in all seriousness, and varying degrees of maturity depending on the age of the character. As the mother, Emma Campbell is all grace and dignity. As Perks, Craig Warnock is a mix of efficiency and compassion. The star, though, is “Vicky”, an antique steam engine who makes her dramatic appearance twice during the show.

The Railway Children is a sweet, often moving story, full of vivid theatricality. It’s an ideal introduction to the theatre for children five and up, and their adult companions will be charmed too.

The Railway Children continues at the Roundhouse Theater.

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