Stowmarket audiences get all steamed up over classic railway drama

Phyllis gives a note to the Old Gentleman in Stowmarket Dramatic Society's production of the The rai

Phyllis gives a note to the Old Gentleman in Stowmarket Dramatic Society's production of the The railway Children. Photo: David Vince - Credit: Archant

The Railway Children remains one of the nation’s most beloved children’s books and now it is being transferred to the stage. David Henshall talks to David Vince about a new production at Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre

Mother meets the Old Gentleman in Stowmarket Dramatic Society's production of the The railway Childr

Mother meets the Old Gentleman in Stowmarket Dramatic Society's production of the The railway Children. Photo: David Vince - Credit: Archant

The Railway Children is one of the best books for youngsters ever written, but its appeal is far wider because it is an exciting and emotional story that embraces the best of family life in the most engaging manner.

Edith Nesbit wrote her novel in 1905, four years after the death of Queen Victoria and at a time when the railways were still one of the marvels of the age; when Britain was the most advanced nation on the planet and ruling a quarter of the world.

It is said to have been inspired by her walks near Chelsfield station and watching the construction of a nearby railway cutting and tunnel, and she has peopled her tale with a mix and match of characters across the social classes that is truly heart-warming and finally triumphantly touching.

It concerns a family who have to move from their large, comfortable, servant-rich London home to a cottage near a railway line in Yorkshire when the father, who works for the Foreign Office, is imprisoned after being falsely accused of spying.

Mr Szezcpansky collapses on the station platform in Stowmarket Dramatic Society's production of the

Mr Szezcpansky collapses on the station platform in Stowmarket Dramatic Society's production of the The railway Children. Photo: David Vince - Credit: Archant

The children, Roberta, the eldest, Phyllis and Peter, befriend an old gentleman who regularly takes the train near their home and he helps in the bid to prove their father’s innocence. They also take in Szezcpansky, a Russian exile looking for his family, and the old gent’s grandson, who they save from a dreadful accident in a tunnel.

The book has been adapted for TV several times and twice filmed, with Jenny Agutter starring in both, first as Roberta, or Bobbie as she’s usually called, and 29 years later as the mother. It’s a story people never tire of, cropping up happily in the theatre at intervals, and it is the challenge that Stowmarket Operatic and Dramatic Society is taking on next week.

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They are using the Mike Kenny adaptation first seen at the National Railway Museum at York in 2008 and later on disused platforms at London’s Waterloo Station. Both these venues were able to employ the distinctive services of a real steam train.

SODS, who are staging The Railway Children in the round – with people on all sides – cannot squeeze a proper puffer into the John Peel Centre but, says director David Vince, with steam, smoke, great lighting and super sound, audiences will always be in the thick of the action.

“With these things we can reproduce all the important features of the play. Our sound man is very knowledgeable about steam railways and has got the perfect noises for us: everything from trains passing in the distance to the terrifying tunnel scene.

“We’re also using the biggest advantage anyone can have – the audience’s imagination.

“Our railway lines run diagonally across the stage from one corner to the other and the great thing about putting this on in the round is the fluidity with which the scenes run into one another.

“It’s not naturalistic in that sense but it works because it’s got such pace on it.

“The children talk to the audience a great deal, sometimes saying ‘We’re going to need your help with this bit’, but they are able to carry it off successfully. The supporting characters act out all the naturalistic episodes.

“Peter and Phyllis are always arguing and Bobbie’s trying to keep things on an even keel. ‘Look,’ she will interrupt, ‘we haven’t even told them about when mummy got ill.’

“You are helped enormously by this script. You don’t have to laboriously act everything out. They refer to something and move on so quickly.”

As one thing finishes in corner one, something else is starting in corner three and so on, he says. It’s an enormous jigsaw puzzle to start with, but, once you’ve worked out the movement of people and things, it’s great.

The children are played by Sharon Preece (Bobbie), Sophie Stagg (Phyllis) and Henry Skillern (Peter), with David Cullen as the Old Gentleman, Sarah Roberts as the mother, Nigel Ramsden as Perks and Frank Lea as the father and Szezcpansky.

The Railway Children is at the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket, August 22–26 (matinees 2.30 Thursday & Saturday). Tickets: 01449 774678 (10am–2pm Monday-Friday) and www.johnpeelcentre.com

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