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Brighton Year-Round 2022

The Railway Children

Brighton Little Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Children's Theatre, Costume, Family, Outdoor and Promenade, Puppetry, Theatre

Venue: Brighton Little Theatre at BOAT


Low Down

Directed by Steven Adams and Tess Gill

Stage Management Team Bradley Coffey, Claire Prater, Rosalind Caldwell.

Set Design Construction and Painting Steven Adams; Set Construction and Painting Tom Williams,  Sign Painting and Set Décor Patti Griffiths, Set Construction the Cast & Crew.

Lighting Design, Lighting /Sound Operation Beverley Grover

Sound Design Steven Adams and Tess Gill

Costumes, Margaret Skeet, Felicity Clements, Wigs/Hair Patti Griffiths

Photography Miles Davies. Poster and Programme Design Steven Adams

With special thanks to Glenys Stuart, Glenys Harries-Rees, Mimi Goddard

Till August 13th then at BLT 16-20th August


There’s something unique about the way Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children appeals to young and old – and Steven Adams’ and Tess Gill’s production of Mike Kenny’s faithful, exuberantly theatrical 2008 version triumphs, refracting adult worlds though the skitter of childhood. By getting the trio to narrate, interpolate, break fourth walls like small toys, Kenny’s take winks at the 21st century in knickerbockers.

It’s there  from the moment a marvellous green train belching white smoke chuffs round with a theatrical coup of a single-sided carriage through which passengers wave as the whole perambulates round the BOAT green. There’s a surprise treat afterwards. Adams and Tom Williams with the cast build beautiful props – elsewhere there’s just a table and chairs needed in this small miracle of staging. Beverley Grover’s sound is both punchy and remarkably clear in an outdoor theatre; lighting her speciality.

It’s a superb balance. Sophie Davies’ Bobbie, subtly drawing away from childhood’s siding, Chris Church’s risk-taking vulnerable Peter and Chantelle Winder from last year’s Dream in the dream role of Phyllis whooping up every line (that train’s a green dragon), keep childhood front and centre.

When The Railway Children was first scheduled before covid, the topicality of taking in Russian or more properly Ukraine refugees couldn’t have been guessed at. It’s just one dark swirl of 1905 politics shadowing Nesbit’s bright summer, and the men’s dark costumes (Margaret Skeet and Felicity Clements’ immaculate period dress looks sweltering) make actors appear ebony pawns on an emerald chessboard; against a brilliance of light blues and frothy whites of women and girls.

The other political shadow’s surely the Dreyfus Affair, a man wrongly accused of spying: it sets the plot in motion and of course you don’t need to know that now; but in 1905 many did. A socialist, Nesbit knew emigrés like the gentle anarchist Kropotkin and determined to bring them into her story: sympathetically too.

Directors Adams and Gill pace this one-hour-fifty-with-interval at BOAT, before it chuffs off to the BLT next week. Briefly, two men (Adams, standing in at late notice as one Government Officer, alongside Bradley Coffey) arrive in black, and Dominic Fean’s Father goes away with them.

Soon the prosperous family have to dismiss servants (Daniel Carr’s first role as regretful Butler, you might remember him in May’s outstanding BLT Anne Boleyn) and move from London to Oxgodby North Yorkshire, in a tiny cottage: the Three Chimneys. This is where Diane Robinson leaves off her former acerbic Cook for kindly Mrs Viney (also with Nettie Sheridan as railway workers).

Joanna Ackroyd’s Mother tries to make ends meet by writing children’s stories, and Nesbit deliberately recesses her so we see -mostly through Bobbie’s wrong-way child’s telescope – adult fears and worries until Bobbie, growing fast, swivels focus. Ackroyd inhabits her role’s veiled melancholy, only occasionally foregrounding herself. It’s the children’s story: Ackroyd telegraphs an essential but remote figure, someone the children paradoxically look after.

Davies sashays fading childhood glee with anxieties of Bobbie’s own, leading the narrative as she and particularly Winder – in exuberant interruptions – perform an almost straight/funny double-act. Davies, serious, with warmth particularly towards Carr in later incarnations, and towards Ackroyd a cusp of empathy and difference. Church is horribly good at petulance, self-justification and being subverted by them – whatever his pre-determined gender role.

Above all there’s the trio’s interaction with the magnificent Perks of Leigh Ward. Kindly stationmaster, he’s a proud man too and not all kindnesses are appreciated, in a memorable scene with Sheridan’s Mrs Perks and an array of puppet-children brought on by Claire Prater and Rosalind Caldwell in a bubbling mini-ensemble. Prater and Caldwell are train drivers too – watch out for that! Ward’s one of the production’s great chuffs, in broad north Yorkshire, all avuncular warmth and admonitions.

The engine of the plot though is Adams’ Old Gentleman. You’d not credit Adams had to step in late, so perfectly attuned is he to his time-piece world of half-hunters and 9.15s. Habituating themselves to a ritual of waving at the 9.15, finding Adams Gentleman waves back, he manages at least four miracles – one entirely without Bobbie’s knowledge.

Thus when Mother falls ill through overwork and Bobbie thrusts a note of medical requirements through the window, these miraculously appear, (Carr the kindly doctor willing to slash fees). It sets up defects of virtue: the children’s unasked-for good-deeds, which their mother concedes, but Perks, well… The Gentleman intervenes again to reward the children with watches (via Bradley Coffey’s interminable District Superintendent speech) for their action closing the first half.

He also helps locate exile Mr Szecpansky’s family (Fean again as famished French-speaking author), as well as of course the greatest action of all. There’s a connection too when children rescue broken-legged sprinter Jim in a tunnel. It’s the point where Carr’s Jim and Davies convey adolescent attraction; as Bobbie puts it, she’s somehow on a different track, away from her siblings. It’s a delightful intimation scene.

It’s Act One’s climax the story’s written around; this production soars with urgency and brio.  Finding a landslide, the sisters tear off and rip red petticoats in half as flags. Prater and Caldwell with their engine, the fainting Davies standing directly in its path, the shouting – can anyone resist this?

Though the acting’s uniformly good it’s clear too the trio have the lion’s share. Davies intimates Bobbie’s growing sense of responsibility, conscience, teen feeling. Church hunches Peter in the right hangdog wannabe outnumbered by his sisters till danger makes him decisive – though Bobbie takes greater risks. Winder’s Phyllis is everyone’s annoying, truthful, joyous younger sister; she brings a special energy.

In a mix of fairy-tale coincidence, childhood wonder, oppressed adults and up-to-date politics there’s an edginess it’s tempting to smooth over. This wonderful BLT production lightly freights that adulthood, teen sadness, politics, and above all stokes fire in a whooping whistlestop of a classic as it leaves bound for the imagination. And… if you ask nicely, you can pose with cast and that engine straight after. Look out for it returning too, to BLT’s own theatre on 16th-20th August.