It’s one of the great iconic moments of British film – the one where the steam from the great Edwardian railway engine begins to clear from the platform of the little country station, a man in a dark tailcoat appears through the haze, and Jenny Agutter, playing the eldest child, Bobby, speaks the line that has been reducing strong men and women to tears ever since the film version of The Railway Children first appeared in 1970 – “Daddy! It’s my Daddy!”
Theatre Royal, Glasgow ***
The legendary status of that film version means that it’s no easy task to try to recreate the Railway Children experience on stage, so congratulations are due to producers Nick Brooke and Exeter Northcott Theatre for making this touring production as vivid and persuasive as it is, with a powerful use of projected backdrops conjuring up the main scenes of the story, from the Yorkshire country cottage where the three children and their mother take up residence after their sudden departure from London, to the little station, complete with moving trains, where the children make friends with the station master, Perks.
Edith Nesbit, the author of The Railway Children, was a lifelong socialist; and although she wasn’t quite radical enough to consider putting Perks’s children at the centre of the story, a sense of class and its dissonances runs through her tale, as the “quite posh” Bobby, Phyllis and Peter try to befriend the people around them without seeming to patronise, and, most spectacularly, use their bucketloads of upper middle class social capital – nice manners, good education, foreign languages – not only to make a life for themselves in their new home, but eventually, to get their missing father released from his false imprisonment.
In Peter Jepson’s heartfelt and enjoyable production, the story is delivered with real feeling by Millie Turner as Bobby, with Stewart Wright narrating as Perks, and Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton as Peter and Phyllis. And if the whole affair sometimes seems a little stilted – both in its carefully calibrated Edwardian accents, and in its efforts to fit in with the projected scenery – it’s still worth marvelling at the force with which Edith Nesbit conjures up her dream of Edwardian society: a place where wrongs are done but always righted, where good children dream of social justice, and where a new technology called railway transport – barely a decade old when Nesbit was born in 1858 – binds the nation together as never before, and drives it forward, into a new century.
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, final performances today; and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 11-15 July.