The Railway Children Returns to York

The biggest story of August arguably belongs to the homecoming of The Railway Children. After winning multiple awards and universal acclaim from its tour in Waterloo and Toronto, Canada, the beloved story of E. Nesbit returns to the National Railway Museum, York. In collaboration with York Theatre Royal, the adaptation follows the Waterbury family as they move from their comfortable lives in London to a new home in Yorkshire. With the father’s mysterious disappearance, siblings Roberta (Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey), Peter (Izaak Cainer) and Phyllis (Beth Lilly) find themselves immersed in poverty. Escaping from a house suffocated by secrecy, the three siblings, who call themselves the railway children, form an emotional tie with the railway. Through this attachment they come to change the fate of, not only their family, but the entire town.

 The entire Signal Box Theatre was brought back to the 20th century, leaving the audience in awe

Beth Lilly, Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey and Izaak Cainer credit Anthony Robling

No other theatre would be more fitting than The Signal Box Theatre; blessed with the National Railway Museum as its backdrop, it separates its audience to either side of a specially designed train platform. Dressed in perfectly suited Victorian dress (brilliantly arranged by Costume Supervisor, Janet Hull) the cast began their performance as we settled into our seats, waving their hands tirelessly to us. The story began with extraordinary clarity, wherein the three railway children, naturally, held the spotlight. The eldest, Roberta, is protective of her family whereas Peter is argumentative, especially with the youngest sister Phyllis, who is cheerful, naughty and perhaps most humourous of them all. As the true heart of the story, all three actors put on a marvelous performance and developed their characters clearly. However, while Roberta and Phyllis were given considerable lengths of individual performance, Peter unfortunately fell victim as a result. Roberta and Phyllis were responsible for two of the most captivating elements of any story – sentiment and humour – whilst Peter was left with few opportunities to showcase his talent. At the beginning of the play, Phyllis complained that being the youngest situates her somewhat in the middle of her siblings, but it was actually Peter who is left in limbo, struggling to establish a strong identity from the shadows. Other characters, such as Mrs Waterbury (Andrina Carroll) and Mr Perks (Martin Barrass), left their mark effortlessly. The latter was particularly impressive; with his Yorkshire accent, some of the scenes about cultural differences were decorated beautifully with his voice and movement.

One of the masterminds behind the 2015 production, Mike Kenny, certainly understands the ups and downs of the script and manipulates them wonderfully. The excitement of the plot winds down when the interval approaches but no one could suspect what would arrive in tow. A GWR Pannier Tank 5775, the original locomotive that featured in the classic film, rolled in majestically to reinvigorate the magic. All of a sudden, the entire Signal Box Theatre was brought back to the 20th century, leaving the audience in awe while Phyllis, once again, used her childish voice to tease us. We should not be disappointed, says Phyllis (as if we were anywhere close to being disappointed), because no disaster happened; after all, the show is a family entertainment!

A special mention must be given to the breathtaking visual effects

Martin Barrass and cast at the station credit Anthony Robling

A special mention must be given to the breathtaking visual effects. Without the fabulous smoke and precise lighting, the remarkable atmosphere could never have been achieved. The paper chase scene inside the dark tunnel is cleverly envisaged and executed to utmost profession. We, as the audience, were left in the dark just like the characters, and if it was not for the company of other spectators, it would be quite a frightening experience.

The production could have benefited from putting a heavier focus on the cultural differences between the South and the North, which would perhaps strengthen the overall quality and depth of the story. It is something that the general public mostly overlook, and while it is touched upon at the beginning of the Waterburys arrival at Yorkshire, it is quickly discarded. Considering Elizabeth Gaskell’s infamous North and South tackled such issues over two centuries ago, the fact that discrepancy remains today would no doubt help revive Nesbit’s tale within our modern world if explored further. With the marvelous costume design and the locomotive at the background, it could be one of the highlights of this production as a comparison of the cultural differences between different eras of this country.

Waving permeates the roughly 2 hours of performance. Indeed, it is a gesture that becomes particularly resonant once situated in a train station. As the actors wave their goodbye and we wave ours to them, E. Nesbit’s word came to my mind: “Everything has an end, and you get to it if you only keep all on.” This is an all-round successfully performance and well-produced drama, so before The Railway Children wave their final goodbye to the NRM, York Theatre Royal and this city, I strongly recommend you come and wave your greeting and slip back into the tale we know and love so well.

The Railway Children is showing from Friday 31th July – Saturday 5th September at the National Railway Museum. Tickets can be purchased here.