I have a confession to make: I have never seen The Railway Children. Every Christmas I've somehow managed to miss it and I never read the book as a child. All I knew was that it's supposedly a classic, a timeless story for all ages - and Union Theatre's charming production certainly proved that for me.
For those who don't know the plot, The Railway Children follows the journey of siblings Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis, whose lives change overnight when their father is taken away. Moving from a wealthy household in London to a small cottage in Yorkshire, they begin a new life with less privilege but rich in adventure and friendships, especially with the local railway porter, Perks. Throughout the course of the play, it was gradually revealed what has happened to their father, culminating in a satisfyingly poignant ending.
Pleasingly, the production did not shy away from showing the darker undercurrents to the plot: the children's father is arrested and unjustly convicted, which Bobbie discovers by reading it in the paper rather than being told by her mother. Coerced into complying with her mother's desperate need to conceal the precariousness of their economic situation to her children and to the rest of society, oldest child Bobbie is forced to grow up quickly. The sweetness of the story was counteracted with these occasional moments of grief, giving further credence to the joy that the children seek in their daily adventures.
The production speeds along with the skill and boundless enthusiasm of a strong ensemble cast, which moved seamlessly through fun and fast-paced choreography and infectious songs. Emma Davie brought a bright-eyed zest to the role of Phyllis, complemented perfectly by Jamie Moore's energetic and gutsy portrayal of her brother Peter. Victoria Ellery-Jones was highly watchable as their sister Bobbie, bringing to life her vulnerability and emotional depth in a compelling performance.
Belinda Piasecki understatedly conveyed the turmoil beneath the determination of the children's Mother, whilst the jovial stationmaster Mr Perks is played with effortless affability by Dominic Wilson. Marcus Queenborough was beguiling and warm as the quietly heroic benefactor, Old Gentleman. His grandson, Jim had a tender presence in the hands of Stuart Mills, who interacted charmingly with Victoria Ellery-Jones as Bobbie. The enjoyment felt by the entire cast was was evident, and a sheer delight to watch.
Music and special effects served to further heighten the action onstage. The talented live band, including percussion, keyboards, harp, marimba and vibraphone, brilliantly evoke mood and pace throughout. A particularly clever use of lighting and smoke machines created a fantastic sense of tension, which builds to a breathtaking climax when Bobbie is almost hit by a train whilst trying to warn it of danger ahead.
Some may argue that the story is slightly old fashioned in places, but perhaps this idealised portrayal of childhood is exactly the kind of escapism we need right now. Without being twee, the cast wonderfully highlighted the traditional values that bring about everyday joy in the story: the importance of kindness, of helping others and of familial solidarity. The family show no hesitation in taking in and looking after lost Madame Szczepanskia and Jim, when he becomes injured. Considering the political climate today, this vital need for compassion rings more true now than ever.
The Railway Children is a little touch of magic, which more than delivers a generous dose of happiness.
Union Theatre's production of The Railway Children runs at Solihull's URC until Saturday 2 July. For more information or to book, click here or call the Box Office on 07949 508 478.
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