IN WHICH YOUR REVIEWER CRACKS UP ENTIRELY
Tears are strange. They can fill the eye when witnessing not horror or sadness, but a sudden kindness. It is a kind of happy sorrow: maybe a recognition of our own desolate inner yearning for a kind word. However it is, Mike Kenny’s marvellous adaptation of E.Nesbit’s book brings it on more than once. And since steam-engines themselves nearly always make me gulp – so noble, so shining, so faithful, so lovingly tended – the real one in the show pretty well wiped me out. Twice.
It was one of the first plays I reviewed for the Times, nearly five years ago when it came from the National Railway Museum at York to the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo. Now it has a bigger cast of extras and an equally wonderful set: audience on platforms either side of real rails, over which simple wooden stages glide the changing scenes to and fro without fuss. Props (apart from the locomotive) are simple enough to inform children, as all good children’s theatre should, that they can go home and recreate it in play. That first time I took a 9-year-old, and despite having never read the book or seen the film, he absolutely got it.
Indeed the memory of the film, good as it was, fades very rapidly because this is a real piece of theatre, faithful to the quirky, inventive, principled early socialist Nesbit and her respectful understanding of children. The three are remembering the summer in Yorkshire: now young adults, aware of why their father was taken away. They narrate in memory, slipping easily in and out of time with uncomplicated clarity. Serena Manteghi is an authoritative Roberta, catching perfectly the age of transition: half child, half questioning adolescent worried about her mother and discovering the horror of her father’s disgrace. Jack Hardwick is a nicely pompous Peter (Nesbit had boys bang to rights!), Louise Calf the cheerful, blurting youngest. Children will recognize the types immediately.
But Damian Cruden’s production is fully satisfying for adult audiences. Because it’s often funny, but also because of its faithfulness to the 1906 setting, evoking the class awkwardness of a family come down in the world, the mother – Caroline Harker again, sternly warm – hiding the truth from her children, and the bluff kindness and bridling offence at “charity” of stationmaster Perks, a gorgeously Yorkshire Jeremy Swift . The arrival of the penniless Russian exile Schepansky is wonderfully handled, the children’s curiosity and the mother’s grief for “all prisoners and captives” in counterpoint. And of course there are the dramas on the railway line, the red petticoat, all that. And OK, some of us do cracking up with emotion when the great green locomotive (LSWR Adam T3 class No. 563) puffs in for the first time and hisses to a lifesaving halt.
But the delight of this production is that it doesn’t depend entirely on that – er – star vehicle. Earlier in the show, tremendous sound effects and great clouds of steam evoke it, and so does the children’s wonder. The father disappears into steam, in poignant silhouette between a top-hat and a policeman’s helmet; he reappears from it at last to that famous cry of “Oh, my Daddy!”. Steam! Love! Redemption! All those Brief Encounter emotions rise, and you may well need a bun in the artfully recreated Refreshment Room foyer to get over it. Actually, my daughter went straight home and “made an emergency apple pie” .
box office 0844 871 7604 http://www.railwaychildrenlondon.com to 1 March