By Megan Mooney
What first drew me to The Railway Children being presented by Mirvish was the idea of a real live steam engine being part of the show. I didn’t know much about the story of The Railway Children, never having read Edith Nesbit’s iconic novel. It is a really lovely story, and this stage adaptation is delightful.
It has the feel of other Edwardian Era books I read and loved as a child, so I found myself slipping into the story immediately. For some reason even though it takes place in the beginning of the 20th century it remains extraordinarily accessible. The kids I overheard at intermission and after the show really enjoyed it, and my show-partner, Sam, and I certainly did too.
Sam and I both really enjoyed the welcoming of the audience into the piece. Actors came around and introduced themselves, they told us what character they were playing, they thanked us for coming, and they generally set a nice relaxed and welcoming tone.
There was occasional audience participation through the intermission and performance, but at what felt like a perfect level. We participated as a group, no one was singled out. And, when the little girl behind me was so shy I thought her cheeks were going to catch on fire from being asked her name by one of the actors, the actor just casually said ‘enjoy the show’ and moved on. There was no pressure. Incidentally, it was also pretty adorable when I heard the little girl whisper urgently after the actor had left “daddy, why did she want to know my name?!?”
The story is pretty straightforward, this is a show to go to for entertainment, not for pensive retrospection. The story certainly didn’t challenge me, but it did charm me. Three siblings face adversity, have adventures, and come out on the other side. Nothing surprising, but lots that is endearing.
The staging is a sight to behold. I mentioned at the beginning that I was excited by the idea of a real steam train, well, that’s in there, it’s part of the show (the train’s name is Vicky, in case you were wondering), but in the end, that wasn’t what captivated me. The whole design for the show is spectacular.
The set is stunning. Beautiful warm wood tones everywhere. The venue is a train station, half the audience on platform A, half on platform B. The stage is made up of the platform and tracks between the different audience sections.
In other productions I’ve been to where the audience faces one another I have found being able to see the audience across from me to be quite distracting. Somehow in this production, that is completely avoided. I imagine a combination of the lighting design, and a no doubt carefully measured distance between audience and stage.
Here’s something just for the theatre-geeks reading this, I was impressed to see that the booth had been incorporated into the set. One of the buildings in the train station, which at first glance just looked like part of the set was in fact the tech booth. Not something that is likely to interest many people, but an interesting indication of how much care went into the design of this space.
Initially I felt like the acting was a bit “over the top”, but it grew on me. It just took me a minute to settle into the rhythm. But by the end of the show I was so in love with the characters of Phyllis (Kate Besworth), Mr. Perks (Craig Warnock) and the “Old Gentleman” (John Gilbert) that I wanted to leap onto the stage and hug all three of them.
In fact, the whole cast, including the young company (made up of members of a children’s chorus) were delightful. It really felt like the whole lot of them were having a grand old time. It’s pretty nice when actors seem to be really enjoying their roles, and these actors really did seem to be enjoying themselves.
The only downside of the whole thing for me was the seats. An odd thing to mention in a review perhaps, but my goodness, they were the most uncomfortable seats I have ever encountered in a theatre. And yes, I’m including the shows done in high school ‘cafetoriums’ and church basements. While I say this as a fat-chick who also happens to be pregnant right now, so I imagine my experience was worse than most, I was hearing similar comments from skinny folk all around me. I’m not sure there is any solution to it, so just consider this fair warning.
The Railway Children is delightful, and I can’t think of a single child I’ve ever met who wouldn’t enjoy this show. It has a bit of everything kids love, action, adventure, laughs and some tender moments. And, when you go to the show, get there early so you can explore the many cool old trains on site at the Toronto Rail Heritage Centre in the Roundhouse, and maybe even take a ride on the miniature steam train!
– The Railway Children plays at the Roundhouse Theatre (255 Bremner Boulevard)
– Show times are Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30PM, with 2pm matinees on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays (added shows on Thu May 26 2PM, Thu Jun 9 2PM, Thu Jun 23 2PM & Sun Jun 26 7PM)
– Ticket prices range from $25 to $99 (Or $140 for ‘Premium Seats’) and are available online at www.mirvish.com or by calling 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333
Photo of Natasha Greenblatt, Harry Judge and Kate Besworth by Cylla von Tiedemann