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The Railway Children. Caxton Theatre, Grimsby. 2 December 2023.

The Railway Children

The Caxton Players

Caxton Theatre, Grimsby

2 - 9 December 2023

This week sees the Caxton Players, under the expert direction of Robert Till, bring one of the country's most beloved stories to the stage. And it is no surprise that the production is already close to a sell out as people seek the unashamed comfort of the familiar in a time of uncertainty during a cost of living crisis. Mike Kenny's wonderful adaption of E. Nesbitt's classic story and does not disappoint. It is full of wit, warmth, and heart and delivers on every beat of the story we would hope for. Till's staging is clever and imaginative and makes maximum use of the small stage at the Caxton Theatre to tell an epic story.

I loved the look of the set which is flexible and detailed and a testament to the set painting skills of Jen Pearson - an unsung hero of the Caxtons, who deserves much greater recognition for her tireless work there. The stage transforms from a drawing room to a station office in the blink of an eye, and the train tracks are ever-present. A lovely treat for the audience.

The costumes are terrific, very much of the period and remind us that we are watching a show set in the dimly remembered past. That fact is important because the whole play begins with the titular children breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience about how they became The Railway Children. This is a useful device as it allows actors older than those in the original story to perform the roles of the children throughout and never breaks the bounds of credibility as the story progresses.

The story revolves around a family crisis, in which the children's father is arrested for allegedly selling state secrets and the family is forced to move to the countryside giving up their comfortable lifestyles and their army of domestic servants. They are obliged to make their own entertainment which involves waving cheerfully to the passengers who are on their journey to London, an activity which proves invaluable later as the children get to know the kindly old man who waves back to them daily.

The cast are terrific in their individual roles, each deserves praise for their own performance, but they deserve the most praise for their ensemble performance filling roles as and when required. The children and their mother retain their one character throughout and everyone else multi-roles as necessary to give the impression of a much larger cast than actually takes part. Vivienne Sargent looks resplendent in period costume at the children's mother and gives a truly maternal performance as she tries to protect her children from the harsh realities of life. Rod Chapman is excellent as the children's father and is almost unrecognisable as the same actor playing the doctor later in the show. Steve Skipworth gives a heart-warming performance as the surrogate father figure watching out for the welfare of the family.

John Solley's Old Gentleman is solid and dependable with his benevolence really helping the family at its greatest moment of need. Alison Smith gives two lovely performances as the grumpy Cook and later as Mrs Viney. Gemma Quickfall portrays Mrs Perks, another warm performance, and the family's original Between Maid. Caxton regular, Michael Mayne plays Russian dissident Mr Szezepansky and does a lovely job of performing in both French and Russian. Byron Young plays a butler and a civic dignitary. Bailey Thomas plays Jim, the injured runner rescued by the children, and Ruby-Mae Hunter is the exuberant Elsie Perks.

However, it is the performance of the three children central to the show that make or break a production and the children here are wonderfully cast. Liv Pearson plays Phyllis the youngest child, always questioning and asking "Why?" she manages to avoid cliches in her performance and is an endearing presence on stage.

As Peter, James Lusty towers above his older sibling but is able to present a naïve and earnest young hero that would not be out of place as a member of the Famous Five, and we accept his characterisation without question.

Finally, as Roberta, or Bobbie, we see Alison Stretton as the eldest child and infinitely plucky and sensible one. Bobbie is a rock for the family, she never allows others to take the blame for their actions alone. Stretton gives a lovely performance and is rewarded with the immortal line at the end of the show, that everyone who remembers Jenny Agutter's performance in the film will be waiting to hear. And they will not be disappointed.

This play is an ideal choice as a Christmas offering to end the year at the Caxton Theatre and audiences will be thoroughly warmed by this wonderful family fare. Book now before it is sold out!

Andy Evans 2 December 2023

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