Images: Chris Watkins Media
Director Freddie Underwood and the cast of The Railway Children absolutely smashed it last night at Devizes’ Wharf Theatre, and that’s coming from someone who doubted it would be their cuppa…..
Said doubt derived from the social expectations and restrictions of my own childhood; aware of the Railway Children film, it just wouldn’t have done to have watched something I’d deem “girly,” and outdated (the film from 1970;) imagine the teasing from my elder brother, and I’d dread to think what would’ve transpired if my school friends found out! Though, at a younger age I relished in children’s period drama, of Enid Blyton, The Velveteen Rabbit, and archaic representations in The Beano comic where teachers still wore mortarboards. But by the grand age of ten plus, there were expectations of me to rather indulge in “boy’s stuff;” The A-Team, Monkey Magic, and a series with a talking car!
Coincidentally, much of the context of the Railway Children deals with social expectations and reputation, yet in a far stricter Edwardian era in which the book was written and set. A fairly affluent London family is uprooted to Yorkshire when the father is unexpectedly taken away by his employers at the Foreign Office. While the mother deals alone with the grief, the social etiquette of keeping the reasons secret from the children only shrouds the affair in mystery. Dealing with newfound poverty and cultural differences between London and the North, the mother and particularly the three children take a few hard-knocked lessons in the mannerisms of the working class.
Yet it is in the misadventures the children engage in, willfully upstanding by all modern reasoning, which the emotional roller coaster evokes the most prevalence and where lessons are sorely learned, yet in turn, sees their father acquitted from the accusations of spying. Not only dealing with the social ethics of the rich/poor and north/south divides, the two eldest children also contend with the issues of coming of age without a father figure.
But its beauty lies not from the genius plot, rather its point of view taken from a children’s innocence perspective. In this, the three children are the only ones allowed to break the fourth wall, as their excitable narration is so cleverly blended with the happenings. It all makes for a highly emotional ambience and thought-provoking mood. With minimal props or effects, the flow feels as imaginative as in the mind of a child. Of course, this couldn’t be carried off with such precision without the need of some top class acting, and herein is the icing on the cake.
The side characters are played enchantingly, Mari Webster as the emotional mother, the kind hearted well-to-do nature of Wharf boss John Winterton as the old gentleman, and the bubbling pomposity of Jon Lewthwaite as the doctor are all played superbly, but it’s within the comical hard-knock mannerisms of station master Perks and the amusing bumbling of the Russian exile Mr Szezcpansky which this play really shines, played with certain skill by Debby Wilkinson and Ellie Mayes respectively.
The play hinges rather on the three protagonists, the children, and, for me, this made it the breathtaking experience it was, plentiful to revert any preconceived doubts on their head and go for broke that this is the best performance I’ve seen at our wonderful Wharf Theatre so far.
Both the eldest child, Bobbie, and middle boy Peter, played immaculately by fifteen year old Katy Pattinson and twelve year old Poppi Lamb-Hughes, just oozes delight and believability by their dedication to the parts and the divine proficiency in which they carry this off. It is with such utter conviction I had to duck back into my car straight afterwards, because as such talented actors it would be impossible to imagine these two as anything but the Edwardian children they were portraying. Ergo, the chance to meet and witness them chatting as usual twenty-first century kids I feared would’ve broken their perfected illusion!
If Bobbie and Peter deal with the conflict of expectations versus growing up and their confusions between what’s right and wrong while everything they expect praise for seems to be returned with reprimand, and equally, anything they seem to do right is hastily turned on its head by the misunderstanding of working class etiquette, the absolute icing on this performance’s cake is without doubt the comical element of the far more carefree youngest child, Phyllis. Influenced by both older brother and sister, she plays the two against each other, and charms all with gusto, wit, and risk taking, just as the typical youngest sibling tends to do!
The mechanics of the part of Phyllis is where this play could have taken a nose-dive, for this surely needs a certain something, a sheer sparkle. And that star is fourteen year old Jessica Self. Simply put, Jessica’s acting ability is sublime, of West-End/Broadway level already. She cam charm when charm is needed, evoke emotion and amuse at the drop of a cue.
Since returning last night I’ve been pondering two possibilities, the first being this part was made for her, but I’m tendering towards the latter possibility, that Jess has the natural skill to become whatever character she is given. I gave thought to the best movie actors, of Dustin Hoffman, of Tom Hanks; how you cannot imagine the persona of the real Tom Hanks through the character he’s playing in each and every film he becomes. I similarly cannot imagine Jessica as being anything like the cheeky girl of Phyllis, rather an imminent actress of boundless talent.
This combination of genius plot, perfect direction and the wonderful acting of particularly Katy, Poppi and Jessica, makes this a delightful, thought-provoking marvel. But you need to hurry as this is near sold out, as expected and deserved.
Another landmark performance at our wonderfully welcoming and devoted little theatre, the pride of arts in Devizes. And if it’s the family oriented ethos you love about it, note it is director Freddie Underwood’s eighth production here, the first time she’s directing her husband Chris, who plays the Father, and of whom she fell in love with during a performance together at the Wharf, and their nine year old daughter Gigi, who is named after said play, and appears in the Railway Children as the child of the station master, Perks; I mean, unless you’ve a grandad you could find a walk-on for to make it a hattrick, you cannot get much more family-felt than that!
Virtual bouquets thrown, then, to all involved with this fantastic show from someone who, if they had Steven Crowder’s “Change My Mind” Campus Sign meme template in the eighties may’ve added “The Railway Children is soppy girly mush!” As you did change my mind, with bells on!
In strict contrast to the synopsis and setting of the Railway Children, the upcoming Girls Like That is the next production I’m advising is unmissable, my preview here. Find all forthcoming events at the Wharf Theatre on our event guide and at their website.
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