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The Railway Children: a modern twist on a beloved British classic

A scene from the original London production of "The Railway Children"

3 out of 4 stars

The Railway Children is an old-fashioned children's story that lures the new-fangled kids in with a bit of well-calculated, Broadway-style razzle-dazzle. Where Miss Saigon had its hovering helicopter, this British tale has a 86-ton vintage steam locomotive that comes zipping (alas, not chugging) down the centre of the stage.

A recent hit at the old Waterloo Station in London, Mike Kenny's play is based on the 1906 book by Edith Nesbit that's a national treasure in Britain, but less well-known to Canadians - at least to this one.

Upper-class siblings Roberta, Peter and Phyllis must relocate to the northern English countryside after their father is taken away by two mysterious gentlemen. Suddenly living with but one servant in genteel poverty at a house dubbed Three Chimneys, this trio of good-natured children embark on a series of mild adventures that usually - overprotective parents alert! - involve playing by or even on the railway tracks.

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The three track down medicine for their bedridden mother (a stern and sensible Emma Campbell) and help station master Mr. Perks (a charming-as-Yorkshire Craig Warnock). In another scene iconic in Britain from various film and television adaptations, Roberta and Phyllis avert a possible train derailment by removing their bright-red petticoats and flagging down the engineer.

If that latter image seems a barely disguised proto-feminist metaphor, well, Nesbit was a founder of the Fabian Society, the progressive organization whose most famous theatrical member was Bernard Shaw. The Railway Children is gently infused with an awareness of social injustices, such putting a price on health care. Nesbit's tale emphasizes the equality of women (Roberta and Phyllis, in fact, prefer the masculine monikers Bobbie and Phil), while at one point Mother leads a rather stirring prayer "for all prisoners and captives" that is all the more touching for how out of tune it is with contemporary lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitudes.

To stage Nesbit's episodic story - it was first published as a serial in a magazine - director Damian Cruden and set designer Joanna Scotcher have cleverly invented a new riff on traverse staging. A tent-style theatre has been built across train tracks just south of the CN Tower, along which scoot a series of stage platforms. This allows for some lovely images as the play's present steams away into its past.

In the Canadian cast, there are many appealing, unsentimental performances - notably from Natasha Greenblatt, quite moving in her mental passage to adulthood as Roberta, and Kate Besworth, who captures the exuberant stream-of-consciousness of youth as Phyllis, without becoming cloying.

For all the throwback charm of this beautiful production, however, I felt like some key ingredient was missing in The Railway Children - probably nostalgia for the story in question. That the tale is told in the past tense robs its of any suspense, while the three child protagonists are so adaptable and jolly, the can be a bit bland, with the exception of the occasionally selfish Peter who is played a tad too clownishly by Harry Judge. The goody two-shoes girls pale in comparison to their Canadian contemporaries such as L.M. Montgomery's Sara Stanley, who suffered considerably more culture shock when suddenly sent from her urban, elite upbringing to Avonlea. Nesbit was obviously more concerned with instilling stiff-upper-lip British attitudes and proper politics in her young readers than accurately rendering the psychology of children.

Adults without a personal attachment to The Railway Children will have to be staunch anglophiles to really adore the play. As for children, the two-act show with its fairly slow-moving, anecdotal first half proved to be a bit much for some of the younger ones, though a six-year-old girl in front of me was on the edge of her seat. The various English accents filtered through a tricky sound system left me confused on a couple of occasions, so I imagine it was the same if not more so for the children in attendance. As for that 19th-century steam locomotive, it's ultimately not used terribly theatrically - the sound effects are what deliver the thrill. A hint for those nonetheless hankering for a close-up, but too impoverished - genteelly or otherwise - to buy a ticket: It's on display outside the theatre before and after the shows if you want a free peek.

The Railway Children

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  • Written by Mike Kenny
  • Directed by Damian Cruden
  • Starring Natasha Greenblatt, Harry Judge, Kate Besworth
  • At the Roundhouse Theatre in Toronto
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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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