Exeter Northcott Theatre continues its return to in-house producing with an assured adaptation of E. Nesbit’s classic tale of a well-to-do family uprooted to the country. Dave Simpson’s adaptation remains faithful to the original story, book-ending each scene with narration from Stewart Wright’s Perks, the station-master. Memorable moments from the novel – the red petticoat flags, the game of Paper Chase, and the famous reunion at the end – are imaginatively staged, and Timothy Bird’s design incorporates clever set pieces, integrated video projection, and an utterly inspired model railway.
There are three particularly deft performances from the children, Roberta (Millie Turner), Phyllis (Katherine Carlton), and Peter (Vinay Lad), as well-meaning but naïve fishes-out-of-water in a small Yorkshire village. Turner provides a brilliant centre-point as Roberta, swinging easily between childish enthusiasm and thoughtful maturity in a way that keeps the character grounded and likeable. Carlton’s Phyllis is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and only gets funnier. And Lad’s Peter, who has a slightly under-written start, thankfully grows more boisterous in the second half, with some cracking scraps breaking out between him and Phyllis.
On the whole, Paul Jepson’s staging works well to fill the large Northcott space while also being economical enough for the run’s subsequent tour. Moments that could easily become complicated and cluttered, such as the family’s haphazard feast when they first arrive at Three Chimneys, are smoothly dealt with through slick transitions. The choice to have movable but detailed scenery fills out some scenes nicely, but does leave other moments played on a mostly bare stage feeling empty by comparison. Some of the detailing acts as a nicely conspiratorial nudge to the audience, particularly the room with external walls built to look like the end of a train carriage. But then again, it does feel like a bit of a waste to have a large set piece that looks like a train without using it as one…
There’s no doubt this adaptation will be popular with families, and deservedly so. Despite being a solid two-act play, the action trips along so lightly that I didn’t even have time to think about checking my watch, and the audience as a whole seemed engaged and responsive. Still, I found it hard to describe afterwards as anything other than ‘charming’. The Railway Children is a beautifully nostalgic painting of a way of life that may well be lost – but part of me does wish there had been a few bolder strokes.
The sound design seems timid in parts. The scene transitions, punctuated by Perks puling a lever in the signal box, felt hesitant; just turning up the volume on the ‘clunk’ sound effect would have made distinctly more impact. The music felt a little like an afterthought too, and once past the initial moment of Perks cueing it in by turning on a record player, it was easy to forget why it sounded artfully crackled. It was easy to forget altogether, in fact, until a triumphant fanfare at the end, which seemed tonally at odds with the final, quiet moment onstage. And some of the climactic beats in the story felt pared down and rushed. The red petticoat scene in particular wasn’t given much time to build, and it would have felt larger if, as in the novel, all of the children had been waving their red flags until that last, exhilarating, terrifying moment with Bobby left standing alone in front of the onrushing train.
All in all, The Railway Children is well worth a watch, especially for fans of the novel, but as Exeter Northcott Theatre continues to re-build its reputation as a producing house, it could definitely take more risks next time.
The Railway Children is at Exeter Northcott Theatre until June 25th, then tours nationally. For more details, click here.