Waterloo Eurostar Terminal, London SE1
Opened 12 July, 2010

After two summers at the National Railway Museum in York, the production by that city’s Theatre Royal comes to London, and to a venue with a genuine fin-de-siècle atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong siècle, since the site is the great white elephant that is the briefly used and now redundant Eurostar terminal at Waterloo. The auditorium and playing area, however, are impeccably dressed to resemble York station itself a century or so ago.

In order to watch E. Nesbit’s story of the three children and their mother who relocate to rural Yorkshire circa 1900 when their father is falsely imprisoned, the audience sits on either side of one of the actual tracks, with playing areas on either platform and a series of trolleys brought in and out along the rails. In magnificent coups, a genuine period locomotive (the 1870 Stirling Single, trainspotters) and the saloon car used in the 1970 film version also pull in. On other occasions, moving jets of steam beneath the platform suggest the passage of the trains watched by young Roberta, Peter and Phyllis, and indeed on press night it was hard to tell whether a general cloudiness in the air was a deliberate evocation of steam-age fug or a coincidental high-summer indoor microclimate of the sort that can coalesce in such spaces.

Mike Kenny’s adaptation shows his mastery of playwriting for children and families. Like Nesbit, he does not talk down to youngsters. He delineates the central trio well, without over-emphasising their age differences: Sarah Quintrell’s Roberta is the most responsible by nature, not because she is the eldest, and the lioness’s share of laugh lines given to (and fully merited by) Louisa Clein as Phyllis are neither infantile nor winsome. Kenny and director Damian Cruden deal beautifully with Nesbit’s Fabian values, which here emerge simply as matters of decency and dutiful kindness; they also make explicit the dimension of the unspoken, as the family avoid talking about what has happened to their father but constantly feel its weight. Marshall Lancaster, already an endearing presence from BBC-TV’s Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, ably succeeds Bernard Cribbins, his celluloid predecessor in the role of railway porter Bert Perks. Throughout the evening, adults and children alike are enthralled by the clever mix of imagination and reality.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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