The Railway Children at Oxford Playhouse

August 2004

E Nesbit's The Railway Children is one of the most enduring pieces of children's literature. This tale of three uprooted children joins Gulliver’s Travels and The Tale of Peter Rabbit on the shelf of children’s classics., and has been in print for nearly a hundred years.

However, it is a challenge to stage, not least because the story revolves around the children, and it is almost impossible to find three child actors with the maturity to carry the whole play on their shoulders. This production, directed by Andrew Breakwell, used adult actors with childlike qualities for the three leads.

Another problem with adapting this novel for the stage is that it conveys the children's impressions of their new life through a series of linked vignettes, rather than having a particularly tight plot. Mary Elliott Nelson's adaptation resisted the temptation to add unnecessary pace.

However, as is probably inevitable when staging a play like this, there were hits and misses. Elise Davison was a convincing Phyllis and lent plenty of welcome humour, while Shameer Madarbakus had some excellent moments as Peter. Dan Copeland was a textbook example of the perfect Perks, a rounded but still comical character with kindness as the keynote.

Andrea Davy played Bobbie, probably the most challenging part to play, and had difficulty finding the right tone.  Bobbie's mixture of priggishness, motherliness and touching naivety is always a struggle to bring to life, but in Davy's interpretation, Bobbie's occasional forced brightness came across as patronising rather than heartbreaking.

Doubling-up must have created some confusion for the children in the audience, as Patrick Bridgman was playing both Father and Szczepansky, two men who share not only character traits but clothes. However, the doubling-up was yet another chance for a very strong cast to show their versatility, as if their playing musical instruments between scenes wasn't enough evidence of their talent.

Another reason The Railway Children is hard to stage is that relentlessness is one of the main themes. The grinding machinery of State injustice is pitched against the tireless kindness of ordinary people, with the chuntering of endless trains in the background. And all this is seen through the imperfect eyes of a child.  It is tempting to ignore these aspects and aim to please a nostalgic audience with a chocolate-box production.  This production may have erred on the side of heart-warming, but it was so well done, with occasional flashes of brilliance in the acting and staging, that  it would be silly not to just sit back and enjoy the ride.