NODA review of The Railway Children

Performance: 29th November 2019

Review by: Ian Worsfold

I was very excited to be invited to review this show as for many years I have heard great things about this unique theatre but to date had never been to see a show here. I’m pleased to report that the venue is as good as I was expecting and clearly somewhere that this group has made its home. A very tight entrance to the car park was expertly marshalled by volunteers in minus temperatures, without these hardy souls directing the audience I feel it very unlikely that the show would have started on time, so very well done to these hardy souls and I do hope a hot toddy was waiting for them.

When we entered the auditorium we were greeted by a welcoming team and shown to our seats, sadly not our allocated seats as a large group had decided that they wanted to sit together despite not having tickets together and they appeared to think it unreasonable that a request was made for them to move, which they didn’t. This is in no way a criticism of the front of house team, to have made an issue of this and insist on the group moving would have caused a lot more of a problem and reflected badly on the society. The gentlemen tasked with handling this situation acted correctly and made those inconvenienced comfortable, well done to him.

As we took our seats, we were presented with a simple but extremely well-presented open stage. One train tunnel in the middle of the stage and two half tunnels on each side of the stage which were the only access to the stage for the cast. These entrances were used very effectively during the show and the scenes with the full cast on stage were far more fluid with the stage filling up from the sides and the centre, the appearance was a much more natural one than when the stage fills just from either side.

The Railway Children is a film I watched several times as a child and I was looking forward to seeing how the story translated into a play, yes play, I hadn’t been informed that this was a musical and so I was taken by surprise when the orchestra struck up at the opening of the show. At the end of the show, my personal opinion is that I would have preferred it if it had been a play, with the exception of two songs the score did nothing for me and the songs were instantly forgettable, this is in no way a reflection on the cast or the orchestra.

Musical Director Mike Gibbons did a splendid job with the five-piece orchestra and the sound design of Ronan Douse and Mark Luckin did a great job of maintaining a very even balance between vocals and orchestra throughout.

As the show began, the scene was set by Perks the station master, played with a friendly vibe by Andrew Broomhead. Despite his rich and, at times folky voice, I found myself enjoying his voice but not the song.

In the roles of the children’s parents Alan Galway and Julie Shelton gave assured performances with some lovely moments with the children being provided by Julie, very convincing.

Anthony Rose was suitably kind and gentlemanly in the part of The Old Gentleman But like some others in the cast appeared to be not totally at east with the score.

They are named in the title of the show and the three actors had the opportunity to make or break the show, I am very pleased to say they all gave great performances that belied their age. Imogen Burn had just the right amount of care, concern and occasionally disdain for her younger siblings. Josh Broomhead as the self-promoted new head of the family was very convincing and Sophie Broomhead was quite “adorable.”

The first act ends with the children standing in front of a steam engine to stop it before it crashes off the track, the effect achieved by Stage Manager Gerry Stafford and his ‘Monday Night Team’ was quite incredible from where I was sitting it did look as though they had hired a steam train to stick it’s nose out of the central tunnel enveloped by copious amounts of steam. This was one of the best special effects I have ever seen on any stage, let alone an amateur stage, I take my hat off to those responsible.

In a dour score the two stand out highlights were ‘A Once In A Lifetime Day’ which saw a very well disguised Alan Galway appear as the engine driver. My compliments to the costume and make up teams for me making reference to the programme to see it was Alan. Alan’s performance in this song was extremely uplifting and well played and on a crowded stage the movement was very well managed and choreographed by Eve Oliver. The other musical highlight was a true team effort for the penultimate song of the show ‘One Voice’, this was an excellent song beautifully sung by the entire cast.

With the exception of, in my opinion, a poor score, the only criticisms I could make (and I hope these will be taken as they are meant) was that on two or three occasions soloists were waiting with one eye on the MD for three or four bars to be brought back in. Make use of those bars, anything simple to use up the time, this makes your performance look that much more confident.

Secondly, I have heard on many, many occasions cast members refer to being “only in the chorus or ensemble”, this makes them sound as though they are not important to the end product, this is completely false and makes them think that just because they are in the back row it doesn’t matter if they don’t know the words or the moves, it does matter, as the audiences eyes are drawn to that person and it detracts from what everyone else on the stage is trying to achieve – there was one such person in this cast!

The story telling of this show was a credit to the society, it was very well directed by Paul Wildman and despite not liking the songs, I did have a very enjoyable evening.