Tickets please for children’s classic
IT’S full steam ahead for award-winning Felixstowe Musical Theatre, who are preparing to bring The Railway Children to the town’s Spa Pavilion.
Who hasn’t grown up having read Edith Nesbit’s book or seeing the 1970 film adaptation starring Jenny Agutter which tells the tale of the Waterbury family, who move to Three Chimneys, a house near the railway, when their Foreign Office employee father is wrongly imprisoned for selling state secrets to the Russians.
Children Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis enjoy watching the trains and waving to the passengers. They become heroes when they alert a train driver to a landslide preventing imminent disaster.
Making friends with station porter Albert Perks and the Old Gentleman who regularly takes the 9.15am train, their father is cleared and the family reunited.
Adding to their adventures are Russian exile Mr Szczepansky, who comes to England looking for his family; and Jim, the grandson of the Old Gentleman who suffers a broken leg in a tunnel.
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What you might not know is there’s also a musical theatre adaptation, first presented at Sevenoaks Playhouse in Kent with a cast including Are You Being Served star Nicholas Smith as the Old Gentleman, Paul Henry from Crossroads as Perks and West End star Susannah Fellows as Mother.
“Everything that’s in the film, the book, is in the musical. I think we’re the first company in East Anglia to do it,” says director Michael Crane.
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“Rehearsals started at the beginning of October and have been going very well; we’ve got an absolutely wonderful cast.”
It’s not, he admits, full of recognisable songs. The show was completely new to him but he fell in love with the music.
“There’s not a song that anyone would’ve known in it, but it’s very good and we’ve turned it into a big production show with some big chorus numbers.
“In parts the music’s a little bit like Les Miserables and then in parts I’d say it’s a little bit like Oklahoma believe it or not. It goes from really bouncy numbers to some quite serious numbers. There’s also a nice paper chase ballet in there.”
Luckily for FMT the play was on at London’s Waterloo Station, giving Michael an idea of the task ahead. With so many pantomimes vying for penny watching audience’s attention, FMT think they’re on the right track with this winter show.
“It’s something new and the story’s very well known,” he adds. “It’s a lovely, glorious family show with romance, adventure, comedy. It ticks all the boxes which is one of the reasons why I went for it.”
While not a small show, all involved have worked hard to give it more of a modern, West End look in production terms without losing the period charm.
They’ve also injected a bit more pace, getting shot of delays for scene changes; as soon as the curtain opens the first half flows straight through, with changes made while the cast perform.
Then there’re the special effects - including a train.
“This massive great train’s three metres long, timber made and should be quite spectacular; hopefully it’ll make the audience jump when it comes through the tunnel,” laughs Michael, who’s worked with the Company of Four, was a founding member of the Angel Players in Rendlesham and has performed with FMT.
He’s full of praise for the cast, particularly Harriet Bacon (Bobbie), Ellena Bacon (Phyllis) and Nathan Howland (Peter).
“The children are fantastic, a great team. I’ve worked with several companies and this company, that sings, is absolutely sensational.
“Mr Perks’ children have a little battle in song and dance with the railway children because they talk so different to them, very upper class while Mr Perks’ children are very working class. The song’s called Posh Talk and it’s very good; a nice number for the children.”
There are 47-50 in the cast, ranging in age from seven to Felixstowe town crier and FMT stalwart Jim Wearne who’s 80.
“He plays the Old Gentleman and has done a fantastic job; his character is beautiful. He’s been in numerous productions and it’s probably the biggest part he’s had for some time,” Michael enthuses.
“Our choreographer Amanda Bond’s done an absolutely sensational job. One number, All on Time, is fantastic; It’s a tap dance which finishes up as one big train. And the 200 or so costumes by Eillen Hicks are all superb; everybody’s worked extremely hard.”
Despite appearing in pantomime and Fiddler on the Roof with FMT, this is Michael’s first time directing the company.
Given his son David - playing Mr Perks this time around - directed the company’s highly praised production of The Baker’s Wife, is he feeling the pressure?
“Yeah,” he laughs. “It’s going very well, it’s a nice company and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. We’ve had the first run through and I was so pleased with it. We’re now tweaking and polishing it ready for the opening night.”
The Railway Children runs at Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion from December 2-5.