Review: The Railway Children exudes hope and humanity on Coventry stage

The Railway Children
The Railway Children

Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Railway Children at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

The Railway Children, Edith Nesbit’s perennial story of three middle-class children forced into rural poverty by the unjust imprisonment of their father, has delighted audiences young and old since it was first published in 1905, when it then had very current concerns with geo-political issues that are kept firmly in the background of the story but which nevertheless drive the plot.

Many people will know it from the 1970 film starring Jenny Aguttur and Bernard Cribbins, and recall the famous scene in which Agattur, as Bobbie the eldest daughter, is re-united with her father on the railway station. Few who have seen it will forget her cry of “Daddy! My Daddy!” nor boast that they did not shed a tear at the time.

Let me tell you, this stage production recreates that scene, and that feeling throughout. There were many in the packed and very mixed age audience who had hankies in their hands at the end (me included). And why not? It is story of faith and resilience and kindness; of dignity and fortitude and a belief in justice. These are rare sentiments nowadays, at least on the public stage.

The three lead actors manage to do two very difficult things: be adults playing children and three characters working together as one. When it’s done this well you never doubt the achievement. Leonie Slater is simply dazzling as Bobbie, the eldest of the three Waterbury children. She combines a growing sensibility and maturity with a playful innocence. Who could not fall in love with Phyllis (Charlotte Rawson), the youngest child, with her humour and charm? And Peter (Ted McGowan) the boy in the middle, aged ten, not yet a man, squabbling with his sisters yet utterly devoted to them. Keeping the three together as children is the mother figure, played by Jan Nightingale. She knows of the dangers going on offstage, and the reason for their father’s imprisonment, but she fiercely protects her children from the knowledge of it. We might not do that today, but we can feel the strain of her courage and the joy of their ignorance.

Then there are the supporting members of the cast, too many to mention by name but all worthy of commendation. Mr Perks (Johnny Smyth) is the friendly station porter whose good heart and pride provide a lynch pin to the story. Andrew Sharpe is both stern and affectionate as the father, and I liked Emma Whewell’s busty portrayal as the maid and Mrs Viney. Lukasz Nowacki as Mr Szezcpansky, the Russian dissident and refugee from the Tsarist prison camps, whom the family take in and accept without question, is becoming an actor to watch. The show deservedly received a rapturous reception from an enthralled audience.

The story is full of familiar references to Edwardian England: a period often portrayed as ‘golden’, when in fact it was full of harsh injustices. But here in Three Chimneys, the fictional house in the fictional village of Oakworth, we can believe for a while in the possibility of something better.

* The Railway Children runs until October 19. Call 024 7667 5175 for details.