It is one of the most enduringly popular children’s books, written by a political activist whose skill as an author has delighted readers for generations. Theatrical adaptations have included performances at York’s National Railway Museum and Waterloo Station in London. Now The Railway Children has arrived at Britain’s most remote theatre.
Theatre By The Lake, on the edge of Keswick and a stone’s throw from Derwentwater, enjoys one of the Lake District’s most beautiful settings. While the last train came through the town in 1964, executive director Patric Gilchrist believes it is the perfect venue for Edith Nesbit’s novel.
“Its location makes it special but presents us with special challenges,” says Gilchrist. “We have a resident population of 5,000 and the total population of Cumbria is less than half a million. But I think the strength of the theatre is how the community of Cumbria have taken it on. Some 60 per cent of our audience are Cumbrian residents.”
Although the nearest railway line is some 17 miles away in Penrith, Theatre By The Lake has no trouble in attracting tourists, many of whom have come to drink in the stunning local scenery. Gilchrist says: “There’s something about The Railway Children being very much part of the landscape and the community and that’s very much how we sit – in this extraordinary landscape – and we serve this widespread and tight knit community.”
Nesbit’s classic story revolves around the familiar themes of childhood, families and growing up. It focuses on Roberta, Peter and Phyllis who, after their father is falsely imprisoned, are forced to leave their comfortable Edwardian villa in London and move to a small cottage in the rural north of England. Their new home is close to the railway and, for that summer, they become the railway children.
Since its publication in 1906, The Railway Children has never been out of print. It has been adapted for television four times and once for the big screen in 1970. But what has ensured its timeless appeal? Theatre By The Lake’sprogramme notes go some way to sum this up. Frank Cottrell Boyce, who collaborated with Danny Boyle on the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games and recently won The Guardian children’s fiction prize, writes that Nesbit is “a kind of writer superhero. She could levitate the heaviest material and make it float over your head like a butterfly.”
He continues: “The absence of father frees up the railway children for the great adventure, but the sadness of that absence grinds away under the surface, like an approaching earthquake. And when Bobby finds out the truth, all of its power is unleashed.
“At the end of a summer of adventure, she is shoved into the grown-up world. When she cries, ‘Daddy, oh my Daddy,’ there will hardly be a dry eye in the house. That’s because the girl who had to grow up can – for a moment, on that platform, with her Daddy – be a child again. It’s not a big speech, just a simple cry. Yet it’s one of the most potent lines in all literature.”
Director Ian Forrest chose Mike Kenny’s adaptation of Nesbit’s novel mindful of the logistical challenges of staging a production that, in previous incarnations, has included a real steam locomotive. But he is confident that audiences will be thrilled by Theatre By The Lake’strain.
“We have a very accomplished designer who has magicked up a splendid train,” says a proud Forrest. “It has won standing ovations. People are a bit gobsmacked when they see something of that size on the stage.”
According to Forrest, past productions of books that people have enjoyed as children have proved popular at Theatre By The Lake. Its Christmas shows traditionally attract all ages and are picked for their broad appeal.
“The Railway Children is a fantastically feelgood story,” says Forrest. “There is an energy and vibrancy to the script – we hope that people will have a really enjoyable and relaxing evening.”
The Railway Children runs at Theatre by the Lake until 19 January