Pure, charming and uplifting period drama escapism.
Edith Nesbit's children's book The Railway Children is a timeless classic. Whether you read it as a child or as a parent reading it to your child, or even as a teacher to a class, there's something about it that makes it so special. The book was published in 1906 and it's been adapted to a television series in the 1960s, a play and a film in the 70s, a film again in 2022, and a musical that you can now see in Leicester.
Being a fan of 1970s film myself, I did wonder how effective the story would be as a musical. We caught The Railway Children: A Musical at The Little Theatre last night to see how they managed it.
As a regular at The Little Theatre, it was lovely to see children in the audience outside of its well-loved annual panto. This show attracted a new generation to the theatre as well as those who loved the book and its several popular adaptations.
Set in Edwardian Yorkshire in 1905, three children Roberta (Scarlett Hubbard), Peter (Harvey Griffiths) and Phyllis (Ava Colford) and their mother (Amanda Sadler) go on an “adventure” when they’re forced to move from London and make a new home in the countryside. The absence of their father (Michael Holland) makes the move a very difficult one for the children who are asked by their mother not to ask any questions about his whereabouts.
Hanging about at the local railway line, the siblings eventually become quite popular in the village after a series of illnesses and incidents, and famously, a landslide after which the children take it upon themselves to try to save the people on the train they wave to every day. Through these episodes, they become friends with regular train passenger The Old Gentleman (David Lovell) – who really is quite the darling – and helps the family in times of need.
The story is sewn together with heart-warming songs to set scenes and move the plot along. A jaunty opening number takes us to Christmas time, bringing the entire cast on stage. The set is remarkable, complete with Victorian lampposts, a tunnel, and of course, a railway track. We love a set with plenty of levels and staircases and they’re made good use of by director and musical director Leigh White, who has the characters frequently travel up and down, in and out and round about the set. A great effort was made by the sound, lighting and special effects team who transported us from London to Yorkshire with clever techniques.
Costumes are second to none. The effort, thought and research put into these beautiful outfits by The Little Theatre’s resident costume designer John Bale paid off, providing us with pure period drama escapism.
The story transfers beautifully to today with deep, relevant messages around immigration, refugees, and giving people a home. Amanda as Mother, portrays these messages beautifully, softly, and sentimentally as she encourages the children to see life from the perspective of the writer Mr Szczepansky (Michael Holland) they take in after his escape from Russia. The pair conduct a truly impressive amount of dialogue in French and Russian. Amanda goes on to sing ‘Til the Day’ – her rendition is pure, sentimental, and really captures the feel of longing the character would feel for her husband.
A special mention must go to show-stealer Luke Evered who plays Dr. Forrest, engine driver and journalist. His humour and liveliness add another dimension to the show making him a huge hit with this audience. More comic relief is offered up by the three fantastically relatable village gossips played by Helen Vye Francis, Jane Towers and Rachel Draper.
Much of the charm and wit of this show though comes from the charismatic Tom Young as station master Mr Perks, whose character also acts as the story’s narrator. He humbly pulls off many hilarious one-liners and dramatic pauses. ‘All on Time’, a pacey and complex song, was skilfully manoeuvred by Tom who has a great, bassy singing voice to suit the era and essence of the show, and his northern accent never falters both in and out of song.
And now on to the stars of the show, the children. The three leads, Scarlett (Roberta aka Bobbie), Harvey and Ava as the famous railway children were superbly cast. Scarlett’s singing voice is West-End-worthy, and as a talented actress, I hope we see her treading the boards at The Little many more times. Harvey’s Peter is wholesome and he assertively presents the character arch from a naiive city boy to a compassionate youngster who’s part of a community. Ava is wonderful to watch as little Phyllis. She adds humour to the role and delivers her lines with spirited energy.
The other children in the show are those of Mr and Mrs Perks (played by Kat Lenthall who is as endearing and charming as the rest of her on-stage family). Colin (Rhys Pettit) is hilarious to watch as he executes playful dialogue. Lily Carter delivered a stand-out performance as Elsie – her eye rolls and gestures were lovably perfect. It was a delight to see Hattie Moore as Ginger, who took on the role of chief micky-taker impeccably. Autumn Lisseman played the youngest of the siblings – she’s perfectly adorable as Patch Perks and I can’t wait to see her in many more shows. Dylan Kelvey played an animated Jim, who carried off a broken leg and a budding romance brilliantly.
However, the romance between Jim and Roberta felt a little rushed and therefore a little far-fetched. It would have been more intriguing to see this develop over the course of the show. And more could have been made of some comedy moments that were slightly missed due to the pace of the show. Audience members weren’t confident in laughing too loudly at certain quips for there was not sufficient enough pause or emphasis, or for fear of missing the next line.
And a shout out to the ushers who added a very lovely touch at the very beginning of the show waving flags and blowing whistles to kick off the overture.
See The Railway Children: A Musical at The Little Theatre over Easter until April 5, and then from April 12-15.