Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
2016, 108 min., Color
Drama, Theatrical Production
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Adapted from a 1905 children’s novel by Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children is a joint York Theatre Royal and National Railway Museum production that was staged in a venue near Kings Cross Station in London. This is a filmed performance of the Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden production, which shut down in January 2017.

If you’re from the U.K. and grew up with the book or have walked the park where a monument pays tribute, you’ll feel more easily charmed by a production that half-depends on the warm feeling of shared cultural nostalgia.

Regardless, the stage set is unique, designed to resemble a train station with one set of tracks and a platform on either side, and a single walkway at one end that allows people to cross from one side to the other. Lining each platform are seats where audience members sit as close to each platform as possible without actually being onstage themselves. In this elongated version of theater-in-the-round, characters are in near-constant movement, and the staging is minimalist—with a real train appearing only briefly. For the most part, flat wooden squares the same height as the platforms are pushed into place to suggest the train and various rooms and buildings, and you marvel at how the actors are able to retain their balance as they walk across the square/squares that briefly connects the platforms.

Sometimes they walk across as those platforms are being rolled into or out of place. Sometimes the flat, undecorated platforms are meant to be the family’s kitchen, other times, a railroad car that passengers ride. Still other times, a town square where people gather, or the home where the local railway porter lives. In other words, the staging and set decoration depends upon the audience’s imagination to some degree—and yet, half the fun of going to the theater, for children, is seeing those magical, brightly colored, lavish backdrops and sets. For that reason alone, this adaptation may seem less “magical” or “spectacular” than the South London Press and Guardian respectively pronounced it. The set is so minimalist, in fact, that props are reused as things that they are not—as when an avalanche of rocks is suggested by an avalanche of suitcases (which were used earlier in the production as people boarded the train).

The other conceit is that while small children appear in non-speaking roles, the three main “railway children” are adults who both narrate their versions of what happened and also act out the scenes, so we are supposed to accept them as both children and grown children. There’s a postmodern self-consciousness at work here too, though it seems natural for the characters to consistently break the fourth wall because there is no wall—just people on both sides watching the performance and darkened ends that look like subway tunnels.

There are two problems with a filmed live performance: it’s never the same as being there, and when you can see the faces and body language of the audience you are influenced slightly in your own reaction to what you’re seeing. And I have to say that the audience was pretty dead throughout the first act, which set up the basic premise: a mother (Andrina Carroll) announces to her children, Roberta (Rosalind Lailey), Phyllis (Beth Lilly), and Peter (Izaak Cainer) that because their father had to go away from a long time they must move from London to a small cottage in rural Yorkshire. Telling the story after it has already happened, the children take turns narrating how in this new and unfamiliar world they grabbed whatever friendships they could. They waved at an Old Gentleman (Michael Lambourne) as he passed on the commuter train every day and felt as if they knew him well enough to ask a favor of him later in the play, and they befriended a local railway porter (Robert Angel) who caught Peter doing something wrong that Peter insisted he didn’t know was wrong.

But it’s all dialogue and all storytelling, with very little staging. In addition, the mother can be slightly annoying in the first act, because SHE SHOUTS ALL HER LINES as if she did not know the difference between projection and shouting. And telling and acting out the set-up is nowhere near as interesting as what doing so in the second and third acts as the children interact with a Russian exile their family takes in (James Weaver as Mr. Schepansky), try to find someone to help their father (whom they learn was falsely imprisoned on spying charges), and ultimately do something heroic themselves. You can see it in the faces and posture of the audience that interest picks up as the play gathers steam, though there’s no standing ovation and despite an appearance of the original locomotive used in the 1970 film by the same title, The Railway Children lacks the magic of grand theatrical productions like Wicked or Mary Poppins.

That said, The Railway Children is Dove Approved. Families that grew up with E. Nesbit’s story will feel more kindly toward the production, and children with an interest in theater should be fascinated by the minimalist sets and the ways the actors navigate those sets. In fact, it could be the thing they remember most. Though smaller children can also watch, I suspect, unless they’ve been weaned on the story, they’d be bored suitcase-stiff.

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