There’s a certain irony to missing the start of The Railway Children because your train is delayed, and not an especially funny one. Peter’s desperate watch-checking after the landslide (which was nicely done with a dramatic tower of tumbling boxes) – “The 11.29 hasn’t been by yet! We’ve only got three minutes!” – lost a little of its tension knowing what we all know about British Rail – don’t worry, mate, you’ve got at least 20mins before you need to start panicking…
But this is Oakworth, not Kings Cross, and things happen differently here. In the Railway Children’s idyllic countryside world nothing really awful ever happens (well, nothing Mummy and the Old Gentleman can’t solve, any how), everyone’s “a brick”, and the happy ending is inevitable. Given such a cheesy story to work with, Damian Cruden directs to wring every last drop of emotion from Mike Kenny’s script, laying it on thick but getting away with it because, well, we want Daddy to come home and everything to be alright.
Kenny’s script borrows heavily from both book and film, but it feels right because we want the familiar, slightly saccharine story to unfold, heading inexorably to the famous “Daddy! My daddy!” scene where Bobby (Amy Noble) is reunited with her father (Stephen Beckett) and there is not a dry eye in the house. Well, my 12-year-old companion remained fairly stoic, but I was weeping into my handbag.
The children themselves were done well, although Grace Rowe has a tough job making the rather immature Phyllis likeable. Tim Lewis’s blustering Peter is sweet, and Amy Noble makes a mature and sensible Roberta, with more pluck than she is perhaps gifted in the original story. Blair Plant, sporting a rather wonderful pointy ginger beard, is a moving Schepansky. Marcus Brigstocke is clearing having a great time as the grumbly Mr Perks, complete with thick Yorkshire accent. His gruffness hides a soft heart, and we know three children who will win him round in the end. It’s all predictable enough, but wears its soppiness well.
Special mention must go to Christopher Madin who wrote the beautiful score – strains of Copeland and English pastoral interwoven with brilliant, hummable tunes that never overpower the cast or stray too far across the bounds of sentimentality. Not that a bit of sentimentality is necessarily a bad thing; designer Joanna Scotcher has done a lovely job of making the whole Eurostar terminal space at Waterloo station feel almost cosy. The set and costumes are lovely – there is a real sense of no-expense-spared with the whole production. And then there’s the train. A real, actual live steam train, which runs between the two banks of audience members, puffing and chuntering. It does not disappoint.
Yes, it’s pure, unadulterated schmaltz, but if that’s what you’re going for, then do it boldly, and your audience will go with you. Cruden and his cast tackle the sentimental story with vim and enough dramatic moments to cut through some of the sugar without killing the sweetness. It’s handled with a light touch, and the cast manage not to be outshone by the gleaming train. It’s packed with enough cheese to last you a long time, but this avowed cynic was won over by The Railway Children’s charm, playfulness and sense of fun.