Electric Theatre, Guildford
Music by Alex Parker
Lyrics & book by Katie Lam
Based on the novel by E.Nesbit
Directed by Deborah Crowe
|(L-R) Darren Street, Cassius Hackforth, Anna Vardy, Charlotte Fleming, Laura Sillett
It is a delight to encounter new musical theatre writing that’s based around a strong book and all credit to Alex Parker and Katie Lam for their take on E. Nesbit’s classic.
Theirs is an adaptation however, that albeit grounded in the much filmed yarn, plays fast and loose with the original plot. The narrative's focus is moved away from both the titular railway and children and onto their tireless mother. A bold shift of perspective that doesn’t quite work. Notwithstanding some fine work from Anna Vardy as Mother, her first solo number, a patronising The Best You Can fades into shallow platitudes, while her song to the kids at bedtime, Tell Me A Story, nearly sent this reviewer to sleep! Credit where it’s due however, the second act’s Here Is A Girl, duetted by Mother and Father (Darren Street) is an absolute cracker.
Above all, what this iteration of The Railway Children lacks, is trains! There’s plenty of haze and sound effects and while one may not be expecting a Starlight Express extravaganza of on-stage rolling stock, a glimpse of a steam engine or two, perhaps through some cannily projected videos at the very least, wouldn’t have gone amiss.
This is a community theatre project - so there’s nothing but praise for the hard working and talented cast, with special mention for stand out excellence from Elliott Griffiths and Clare Salter as Perks and his wife.
Parker’s music is a treat - and although he doesn’t come close to matching Richard Rodney Bennett’s magnificent translation of steam into music in his 1974 Murder On The Orient Express soundtrack, he delivers musical splendour that for the most part is vibrant and exciting to listen to - even if his band did lack a percussionist! Ears may have been mistaken, but there's also more than a plagiaristic nod to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Waltz For Eva and Che from Evita lurking late into act two.
There is undoubtedly the essence of something good here though. Lam may need more wit in her lyrics and less wokery in her adaptation, but hey, everyone knows the story and the writers have had the sense to keep Bobbie's (Laura Sillett) “Daddy, my daddy!” as the show’s money shot that definitely hits the spot. Above all, a nod to designer Rebecca Pitt whose artwork on the programme cover is sensational.
Much like HS2, this latest take on The Railway Children needs work. But if your train or rail replacement bus is taking you through Guildford over the next few days, you’ll have some fun!
Runs until 5th February