Nesbit Goes Off The Rails
Edith Nesbit’s ‘The Railway Children’ is an odd book to have become a classic. The Edwardian tale of a middle-class family relocated from London to Yorkshire after their father’s arrest for treason is a series of disconnected episodes, snapshots taken over one summer, in the children’s lives. By 1970 it had been all but forgotten when a character actor, Lionel Jeffries, who always played prison wardens or policemen (memorably appearing in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ singing ‘P.O.S.H.’) switched to directing. He made four films, including ‘The Water Babies’ (let down by poor animation inserts), ‘Wombling Free’ (sadly pre-CGI) and the wonderful Victorian ghost story ‘The Amazing Mr Blunden’.
But it was his version of Nesbit’s ‘The Railway Children’ that stuck, winning a place in everyone’s hearts and becoming a British Christmas tradition. It’s easy to see why; the sharp script and unshowy, unsentimental direction was boosted by two superb performances, from matriarch Dinah Sheridan warning, ‘We shall have to play at being poor for a while’ to Jenny Agutter holding the centre as grave, thoughtful Bobbie, with her remarkably gentle and clear speaking voice.
There are undercurrents here; the political manoeuvring that takes place off-screen as a Russian dissident is reunited with his family and father is sent to jail, and Bobbie’s puberty as she uncertainly holds a boy’s hand in the darkness of the railway tunnel. It’s a prettified worldview and there’s nothing wrong with that – but oh, that final moment on the railway platform as the smoke clears, and the cry of ‘Daddy, my daddy’ moistens the strongest man’s eye…
Well, now it’s a site-specific play billed as ‘spectacular’ and ‘sensational’ (previously seen at Waterloo Station, now at King’s Cross), so I went along largely because it was playing at the end of my road. It’s by far the least pop-uppy pop-up theatre I’ve ever been in – even the loos look permanent – and there’s a vast refreshment room with Edwardian characters serving treats, although some tables in that huge empty space would have been a good idea.
The play is traverse – the stage runs left to right in the centre of the auditorium, built around the railway tracks – with a station at one end and a bridge at the other. Coincidentally, the stage bridge occupies a long-disputed local spot where a real bridge was blocked for access by Railtrack. Cleverly, the scenes are constructed on stages that slide up and down the line like handcars, while luggage does double-duty as furniture and later, the landslide that nearly wrecks the train.
And about that much-advertised train – the green-and-gold, 66-ton Stirling Single locomotive is teased at us several times before it comes roaring into the theatre, larger than life, a spectacular moment with which to close the first half, and for a moment you sense that everyone in the theatre longs for a return to the days of steam.
The children are played by adults remembering back, although this is less a theatrical conceit by director Damien Cruden than an expedient to avoid having children do all the heavy lifting. There are children, mostly running children up and down the platforms with adults (at one point it felt like there were more onstage than in the sparse audience), and here is where the problem lies.
In the stage adaptation by Mike Kenny, Jeffries’ subtle direction has been replaced by declamatory and condescending panto-style wherein every miked line is bellowed and every action mugged, and every incident must occur amid racing scenery, as if Kenny is fearful of losing the attention of younger audience members. Did he and the director not notice that the audience is sitting very close to the stage and can see and hear everything very clearly? Instead, this lavish production is performed as if it was happening half a mile away.
This is theatre as an ‘experience’ rather than a play, and we’re so busy watching stages fly in and out amid the dry ice that less showy, calmer moments are glossed over and lost. The children’s fanciful banter becomes shrill bickering, and the decision to allow Bobbie to break the fourth wall and address the audience, which should have charm, feels manipulative and fake.
It felt as if everyone really did have a train to catch. Crucially, Bobbie’s reunion with her father is hurtled through, its power lost, and the last lines of the book are chucked away, perhaps in the rush to get one audience out and another in. This is one train that would have benefitted from running late.