Playing station-master Perks as The Railway Children steams into Norwich
- Credit: Archant
E Nesbit's story steams into Norwich this week in a new production that recreates the magic that made the famous 1970 film so beloved. Stewart Wright, who is playing Perks, tells us how he took on the iconic part despite having never seen the film.
The Railway Children has a special place in the hearts of both childhood book and film lovers.
Originally written by E Nesbit, it tells the story of Roberta, Peter and Phyllis whose lives are turned upside down when their father mysteriously disappears with two strangers. It means they have to leave their lavish London life for a simpler existence in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside.
The much-loved Edwardian children's novel was famously turned into a 1970 film directed by Lionel Jeffries and starring Bernard Cribbins and Jenny Agutter, which is a cherished part of childhood for many.
The moment when Agutter waves her red petticoat to halt a train in its tracks — and greets a steam-shrouded figure on a platform with the immortal cry 'my daddy' — has passed into film iconography. Come on, you have to have a heart of pure granite to sit through this classic Lionel Jeffries-directed tearjerker without blubbing at least once.
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Now the story is being brought to the stage in a new adaptation by Dave Simpson that uses period costumes to evoke the era and ingenious stage designs to bring to life the trains.
Taking on the role of station-master Perks is Stewart Wright. But stepping into the role so memorable played by Bernard Cribbins held no fear as he has a secret — he's never actually seen the film.
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'I really haven't,' he laughs. 'It was just slightly before my time and so I have just never seen it. Then I deliberately didn't watch it in preparation for playing the part, but I look forward to seeing it when the tour ends.'
He adds: 'Bernard is a fabulous actor and beloved by many and Perks was obviously an important role in his career so I imagine it is pretty hard to compete with that, but as I haven't seen his performance I have just really enjoyed getting under the skin of the character myself. I've taken by interpretation of character from the script and it has been really fun to do that. For me the character really jumped out when I read it so I didn't feel the need to look at other sources for inspiration.'
Dave Simpson's script uses Nesbit's 1905 story for much of its inspiration but all the set pieces people remember from the film — the paper chase, flagging down the locomotive — are also included in the production.
'All the big emotional notes and memorable scenes that I gather people remember from the film are all in this production. It is very true to people's nostalgia for the book and the film, but it also stands up as its own piece. It works really well.'
Evoking railways on stage is always a challenge, especially when you don't have a real steam train to use like the recent hit production staged in London and York.
'When I took on the part I was unsure how they would match the excitement of a real steam train but I'm really impressed how they have done it,' said Stewart of the mix of clever design, staging and direction from Paul Jepson.
He hopes it will help the story capture the imaginations of a new generation. 'It is interesting for kids to be immersed in another era and theatre is a fantastic way of doing that with the costumes and the way the characters talk and some of the issues that they were up against. It's an emotional story that touched me when I read it which is why I really wanted to do it and it made me laugh as well.'
Playing the children in the production are Millie Turner as Roberta, Vinay Lad as Peter and Katherine Carlton as Phyllis, while the mother is played by Joy Brook.
Though he may not have seen the film, Stewart, who made his name in the mockumentary series People Like Us before working on TV show including ITV hit Love and Marriage, opposite Alison Steadman and Duncan Preston, is well aware of the dangers of messing with people's love of part of their childhood. He arrives in this part fresh from working on Doctor Who.
'I was very excited to be in it,' he said. 'I grew up hiding behind the sofa watching Tom Baker so it was fantastic to have that opportunity. I'd never done sci-fi before so that was fun to be involved in all the different costumes and everything. The 'Whovian' fanbase is very passionate and they seem to finding me as I travel around the country doing this tour.'
• The Railway Children, Norwich Theatre Royal, July 31-August 5, 7.30pm, 2.30pm August 1/5, £21-£7, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk