There are different ways of putting across a story set some time ago – the beatboxing and rapping in the West End production of Hamilton is still fresh in my mind, set in the era of George Washington and the founding of the United States. One of these days somebody just might do something similar with The Railway Children. That day has not yet arrived, fortunately or unfortunately, but this new musical adaptation (music: Alex Parker, lyrics and book: Katie Lam) is majestic and beautiful. Presented in concert form for one night only at Cadogan Hall, I hadn’t intended on saying much about it, just going along for a pleasant winter’s evening and letting the music and story wash over me.
I was stunned – in a good way – by quite how wonderful the show was. A 24-strong orchestra, conducted by Parker, ensure the 28 musical numbers sound glorious, and a cast of twelve are flanked by a sixteen member choir. I namedrop the choir, in the order their names are given in the show’s programme: Chris Blackburn, Kirsty Cartwright, Lucyelle Cliffe, Emilie Du Leslay, Lewis Easter, Howard Jenkins, Michael Larcombe, Jonny Muir, Louise Olley, Hannah Ponting, Jack Reitman, Rebecca Ridout, Jacob Seickell, Sorsha Talbot, Natasha Veselinovic, Nick Wyschna.
Spoken dialogue is relatively sparse in the first half, where the lyrics drive the narrative. They do so in the second half as well, of course, but there’s a tad more spoken word after the interval. They could, I suppose, have created a musical entirely sung-through, but that would have made the show considerably longer. On the other hand, it would have allowed more opportunity to hear Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Narrator sing more than just the one song. The overture was lengthy for a modern musical, and – equally unusual to see these days – the audience maintained a respectful silence for all of it.
The setting of 1905 hasn’t been changed, and much of the music doesn’t quite hearken back that far. I did feel at times that the show had transported me back to the days of the Great American Songbook, and with neither a sound effect of a train being heard nor a projection of a train approaching to be seen, the storyline, familiar as it was, was thoroughly convincing. It’s the sort of singing that’s more associated with revivals of musicals rather than new works – singing in the proper sense of the word, devoid of belting and loudness for the sake of being loud. Deborah Crowe as Mother was outstanding, a truly lovely singing voice combined with a palpable sense of care and attention lavished on her three offspring, Bobbie (Rebecca Trehearn), Peter (Rob Houchen) and Phyllis (Emma Harrold). Adults with adult voices playing children? The flawless acting more than makes up for that.
Essentially, there are no real surprises to anyone who has encountered The Railway Children before. Indeed, in some respects, not much has changed – trains are still subject to delays and cancellations, and there were landslides then, and there are landslides now (I write this after a weekend of heavy rain in England, which has indeed caused at least one landslide on the railway). There are still some concerns about what may or may not be going on in Russia, and there are many cases today of miscarriages of justice. One man, Paul Blackburn, was convicted in 1978 for the sexual assault and attempted murder of a minor; he was not released until twenty-five years later.
Father (David Birrell) did not have to wait nearly as long to have his conviction overturned (for spying, if I recall correctly from the book – the musical doesn’t make this clear, or if it did I don’t remember it being mentioned). As you know, Father’s release is partly thanks to the efforts of The Old Gentleman (James Bolam MBE, who at 82 proved in this show that age is just a number). I’m always thrilled to see David Birrell on stage, ever since an incident in a 2010 production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Passion, which had a run at the Donmar Warehouse. Birrell was left blind in one eye after a replica gun misfired during a performance, with various side-effects, including hand-eye co-ordination issues, affecting his ability to perform for some time. There was, in the end, an undisclosed payout. Anyway, he does well in this production, in a cast without a weak link.
As ever with new musicals presented as concerts, one can only wonder what a fully staged production would be like. Mind you, someone in the audience said afterwards they had no previous familiarity with The Railway Children, and yet was able to follow proceedings perfectly well, despite no set or costumes. An excellent and absorbing production.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.