You know a show is working its magic when the children in the audience are not fidgeting. Such was the case with the Stables Theatre’s Christmas production of The Railway Children.
There were no songs, no dances, no spangly costumes and not even a train, other than a hand prop. There were, however three talented young actors in the central roles who took us back in time and completely engaged us in their story.
Mae Jackson (Bobbie), Jack Manser (Peter), and Lily Share (Phyllis) were the backbone to the story and the production. Each captured the essential elements of their characters, whether it was Bobbie’s eldest child‘s concern and courage, Peter’s boyish schemes and intrigues and Phyllis’s innocent humour. Together they were a team we could root for, siblings who quarrelled but loved each other and actors that did not upstage each other or come out of character. And even though we knew it would all come good in the end, we still shed our tears along the way, holding our breath at their misadventures and celebrating their triumphs.
Philippa Casares as the children’s mother was again played for real, even if a mother quite as perfect as this might not actually exist; she was sincere and caring and honest and good and kind and brave - lovely to have a character like that on stage, especially at Christmas. Was her short hair quite right for a woman of that era? For a character so courageous and determined, it looked fine to me, adding to her heroic archetype, free of vanity and frippery. Mr Perks also won us to his cause.
Peter Elliot’s performance in the role caught the plain speaking, hardworking, warm hearted, man that the story required, and fabulous moustache and sideburns to boot. His scene where the children present him with gifts from the village was the most poignant of the show, accompanied by the loudest sniffles and nose blowing from the auditorium.
Costumes, set, lighting and sound effects were all that they needed to be to support the story telling and allow us to suspend our disbelief. Yes, Nesbit’s tale is a sentimental one, but when delivered straight-forwardly, without forcing the comedy or overplaying the pathos, it remains an endearing story of simple, heart-felt truths. Neil Whitehead and Barbara Ward’s production hit this note exactly; no wonder we left the theatre feeling uplifted.