The Railway Children, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School at Redgrave Theatre, Bristol

IN an era when it is fashionable to put your own interpretation on classic stories, rather than faithfully adapt them from the page to the stage, it was a pleasure to find an adapter, Mike Kenny and director Toby Hulse with enough faith in Edith Nesbit’s original text to let it stand on its own two feet.

To be completely accurate I suppose we should say that this script is even closer to Lionel Jeffries’ 1970s film version than the original writing.

To convey the many different settings quite a few sound effects have to be used, these were well organised by Daniel Harvey, and for once the justifiable use of a great deal of smoke. On the matinee I attended this proved to be too much for the Redgrave’s fire alarm system to cope with and as Father emerged from a fog of smoke on the station to be reunited with his daughter this alarm burst into life causing the evacuation of the theatre. Behaving impeccably, the audience, which mainly consisted of groups from two junior schools, quickly and quietly left the theatre leaving the cast, who had kept them in rapt attention for just over two hours, to exit without the applause they deserved.

Cleverly using the same fundamental set that she had designed for Mrs Beeton Says, which has been running in tandem with this production, merely changing the balustrades around staircases either side of the stage meeting in a central balcony, Bronia Hous­man created a space that could with imaginative lighting from Joe Stathers quickly be converted from Edwardian house, Yorkshire farmhouse, railway lines, tunnel, and the station.

Tucked under the arch was a small piano used to play William Want’s original incidental music. This helped to heighten moments like Bobbie fainting as she stands in front of the onrushing train, but also left quite a few quiet places where the cast had to be very aware that they were speaking over music.

Emer Heatley, Kel Matsena, and Rosie Taylor-Ritson made a fine triumvirate as Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis – The Railway Children – their task made that much more difficult by Peter, the middle in age of the trio, dominating the two girls in height. Making good use of his voice Kel managed, without it sounding phoney, to give the impression that he was indeed less worldly knowledgeable than his big sister Bobbie. Phyllis is the joker of the family, someone who rarely engages the brain before speaking. Rosie Taylor-Ritson took full advantage of this to garner many laughs.

As the mother of this exuberant brood, Moronke Akinola kept a quite watching brief, but giving a sensitive performance she always gave the impression that like a lioness. If one of her brood was threatened she would leap to their defence.

The lovable station porter Albert Perks can easily become just a comedic figure rather than a loyal faithful friend and husband. Played with excellent judgement by Sam Henderson he was all these things plus the maker of quite a bit of humour. Good backing also from Louis Rhone as the benevolent old gentleman and Freddy Sawyer combining the sympathetic roles of father and doctor.

I have to question the wisdom of casting male actors as the Cook and Mrs Perks. I cannot believe that the BOVTS are so short of female students that they had to take this course, so presume that have become besotted with the idea of gender-blind casting. In this case the change added little to the production other than to gain a few cheap laughs, which were not in keeping with rest of this fine adaptation and production of a classic tale.


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