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The Play Produced

THERAILWAY CHILDREN Adapted by Dave Simpson from the novel by E Nesbitt

Director Jane Prang nell writes on her Christmas production for Harlow Theatre Company. INTRODUCTION I directed The Railway Children twelve years ago at The Harlow Playhouse Studio Theatre. It was a first venture, so when asked to produce the 2003 Christmas show for Harlow Theatre Company I decided to revisit a childhood favourite of mine. It was to be staged at a different venue (ar1

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adapted hall) made into a small theatre called Victoria Hall. In the first production the audience were on three sides and the latest venture was to be a proscenium arch design.

PLOT & CASTING The stage play is based very heavily on the film about a family who fall on hard times

and have to move to a Yorkshire village after their father is taken away one evening by two men who call on him at his London home. They move to Three Chimney's Cottage and live near the railway line. The three children Roberta, Peter and Phyllis befriend the station Master Perks and his family and meet The Old Gentleman who helps to solve the mystery as to their father's disappearance. We held open auditions to cast the whole show (19 characters in total). We had to search for the children, as we are an adult company. After advertising in the local paper and with Children's' Theatre Groups we had a fantastic 35+ children turn up for the auditions. We did a variety of short sections of the show to hear different combinations 01 adults and children reading. We organised the children into groups of similar height, build and colouring to work together as if in a family situation. We learnt a lot from this as to their commitment to others and their ability to speak properly or with an accent. I really wanted to two main families to look as similar as possible to their siblings to create the belief that they could be related and also a definite contrast between the two families' backgrounds and manners. I used a mix of experience and new talent when I made my final casting as I felt this would help the adults and the children. The children would learn a lot from the experienced adults on stagecraft, blocking and commitment to the cause. The adults would hopefully reap some of the energy that

the children had displayed during the auditions. The cast includes The Railway Children, their mother, Perks and his wife, their six children (the main difference between the film and stage play), the Doctor, A Russian Gentleman, an Old Gentleman, Jim (his grandson), the father and some passengers. It's a really nice mix of ages and I decided to use two young ladies (from the audition) to play the passengers as I felt they would learn more from the production than perhaps experienced actors would and it would be a good learning experience for them.

REHEARSALS I chose to rehearse two evening per week and four hours on a Sunday. I started block'i ng each scene and calling only relevant cast members to each rehearsal so as to not waste their time. It was essential when working with a lot of children (12 out of the 19) were under 16 to revisl ~ sections constantly and to concentrate on a couple of scenes only per rehearsal so as not to overload them. Revisiting scenes every tim E< I had the young people proveo to be invaluable because repetition seemed to be the key to success. We did a lot if, work with speech and articulation, volume and concentration and set ihem time scales in which to learn lines. I found that when work'i ng with children, getti~ their lines down was imperative so that we co uld work on tne movement and subtleties needed to make ; appear as natural as possit:.. ,= To ensure that the aud ie "':.~ believed in our story, it was essential that the children

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"<3Il1ained focussed and in aracter at all times. As some the scenes were children _ Iy, this was essential. We ~ ad many a laugh during 'Enearsals, which I think helped : ~ relax the children and make : em grow into their c aracters. We did a lot of ark on things that the : ildren could amuse memselves with when not the ain focus of the scene, e.g . • atchbox with secrets in, Cats Cradle, Shoe buckles and .aces, ribbons in hair and .\'orked on incorporating these :tetions into the scene to create :"Ie real life element which we ere striving to achieve and : t I believe is crucial to the olay 's success.

SCENERY One of the things that I really anted to create when talking • the production team at the ary beginning of the process as minimal scene changes. I "ad the idea of it being a smooth flow from one scene to ;: next. We had discussions a decided to break the set -1 four defined areas: the ~ . age, the Bedroom (raised), e Station and Platform and, '""";B Tunnel. We were lucky in :wr theatre to have two trances from where the ;; dience arrive onto the stage .nich enabled us to use these .alkways as parts of the ""ation and would make the .=...dience who sat centrally oetween them feel more ..olved in the action. One of the key features was . ~ _ door leading into the ~ ttage and the brickwork the ~ er side becoming the tunnel aature. Both the house door .a the brickwork when :: _shed open and hooked up _ ealed a black enclosed SPace. Above this was the ~~room. The children were <=L a to believe they were in a =a tunnel because of the -2og ng and of course the . • I1g. The cast did any : _ e changes necessary, e.g. • . nuing in character when • ng food or utensils from .;; "lOuse and the cast would a house scene and then . aoors in darkness to 'e the tunnel· entrance. It a.s if the tunnel had -eared from nowhere! : would cover this of

TING - -,,: ighting design brought ~i e show to life. Each he stage was lit for s.::ene and the lights : 'ade from one scene to - . so ttl at when at the

station the house was in near darkness and vice versa. We lit the Ticket Office for Perks virtually all the time so that he could watch the proceedings and the story could unfold which gave the impression that the story was one continuous flow. As Perks narrates a lot of the story, this worked very well as although fairly short scenes, there were never any embarrassing silences as he was there all the time to come straight in with the next section. To create the tunnel effect we used back lighting to magnify the shadows of the children and lit the stage from the open tunnel doors to the front of the stage to create a 6ft wide section only.

MUSIC I wanted to use the original soundtrack if possible and we managed to obtain that and put it onto disk to add to the smooth flow of the production . As one scene ended, music would kick in and the lights would change and the next scene would start once the music had faded out. I chose different parts of the ten tracks to fit in with the feel of the scene and to create extra emotion. The music did work very well and a lot of our audience commented on how it was nice to hear it again as it reminded them so much of the film.

COSTUMES We kept everybody to one costume and added items to the children's clothing like aprons and coats to create the

difference as the story progressed. We felt it was very important to guarantee the whole look so we were very careful to ensure we had period footwear and that hair was styled in fashions akin to the time.

SPECIAL EFFECTS/PROPS Our Props Mistress was able to provide the majority of the items from her own house so we were very lucky. Most of the props were quite easy things to obtain (or make). We advertised in the local paper for a period pram for the party scene and were able to acquire a small one that fitted the working area and stage perfectly. The main effects we needed to master were the train sounds and making the audience believe that there was a train nearby. We used different train sounds at different levels and ensured the cast played their lines looking and moving in the direction of the trains where necessary. We used a smoke machine to create the drama especially when the children are waving to stop the train from crashing at the end of Act I and when the father returns at the end of the play. This created a drama, a haze and a certain amount of fear as the sound increased to cover the smoke machine noises. It was also very effective as the two main times we used the smoke coinCided with the interval and the end of the play so it did not obstruct people's view for very long.

CONCLUSION This play is so true to the original story and therefore a joy to be involved in and to watch. As the majority of our audience would be familiar with the plot, we found the show quite easy to sell so therefore we had good houses and made a very decent profit to ensure our little theatre can remain open . It's essential to cast talented children who are disciplined to create the reality and the belief. Our local paper commented that the children were faultless, so great praise indeed. We chose to put The Railway Children on as our Christmas production, which ran for eight performances. It is a very warm, loving, emotional piece, which made it a very worthwhile adventure for the whole family. Why don't you try it?

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The Railway Children - June 2004