The Railway Children

Are the kids at a loose end this summer? Why not pop along to Brighton’s Open Air Theatre (BOAT) to see Mike Kenny’s adaptation of the Railway Children? It’s a heart-warming story of a middle-class family who strike hard times when father, who is the breadwinner, is suddenly taken away in the dead of night.

Joanna Ackroyd is convincing as hard-pressed mother who needs to keep the family running and the money coming in when father is taken away. However, the shining stars of the performance are the children. Sophie Davis is the eldest, Bobbie, Chris Church (whom we have seen in Blink and Anne Boleyn) is Peter and Chantelle Winder is excellent as the youngest child, Phyllis.

The children are on the stage for most of the play in two acts and Chantelle is building up the credits, having acted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer and in the Twits. Chantelle has great presence as Phyllis and generates at least half the humour in the play, rivalled only by her brother, Peter and Perks.

Chris Church excels at humorous characters and often steals the attention when on stage. He is a very versatile actor and works hard in the Brighton Little Company. Sophie Davies is the eldest child, Bobbie (short for Roberta.) Bobbie is the responsible eldest child who holds the key to finding her father. Acts of heroism distinguish her although she is a little too old to be cute like Phyllis.

The Railway Children

Bobbie’s character was acted by Jenny Agutter in the 1968 BBC production and 1970 film, (Agutter acts as Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife) and you can watch The Railway Children Return at the Odeon at the moment starring Agutter. However, you will miss the charm of Brighton’s outdoor theatre which is one of my summer delights and the intimacy that only the theatre brings.

Direction is excellent. Tess Gill and Steven Adams team up to co-direct the play and bring out the banter between the children beautifully. At the theatre, you really do put aside the day and enter into the lives of the characters, never more so than in the Railway Children. Tess is a seasoned director at Brighton Little Theatre as well as an actress.

Steven Adams makes a brief appearance on set in a critical role. Look out for him. This play has a cast of 13 and many of the actors double up to help with production when they are not on stage. Brighton Little Theatre company is a lean machine and is actively recruiting back stage helpers at the moment.

Leigh Ward deserves a mention as Perks, the train conductor. I saw him acting as Henry VIII in Anne Boleyn and he was commanding. In this play he is still in charge but in a comic role and his wife, played by Nettie Sheridan has a small and very funny role. They bring warmth to the play and straddle the class divide much more evident in society in 1906 when the book was written, than in modern times.

E S Nesbit wrote the book at the turn of the last century and it has been a classic family favourite ever since. Mike Kenny’s adaptation is excellent, sticking closely to Nesbitt’s plot while writing colourful dialogue throughout to add pace to the stage production.

Railway children audience

I think the Railway Children is charming and very close to the book. Adults will enjoy the play as much as children. At its heart, it’s a play about a family ripped apart and making the best of difficult circumstances: the children show great resilience, as kids always do. Chantelle stands out as the youngest actress and I think she is easily as good as the rest of the company.

On a summer’s evening, I can think of nothing better than to pop along to Brighton Open Air Theatre and put your feet up over a glass of wine. The play runs until 13 August at BOAT and then in the equally charming Brighton Little Theatre from 16 to 20 August.

Four stars ****