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Theatre: New version of The Railway Children calls in at Newcastle

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Viv Hardwick finds actor Stewart Wright travelling full steam ahead as a new version of The Railway Children prepares to call at NewcastleTHE steam train powered version of The Railway Children, which has seen York’s rail museum and King’s Cross Station attract large audiences, now has a rival on the rails as a new Exeter Northcott Theatre production prepares for its first stop in Newcastle.Actor Stewart Wright smiles about his role being one of the Perks of the job, because his pivotal role of E Nesbit’s station master is every bit as important in David Simpson’s fresh adaptation as that of York-based Mike Kenny.

“It’s a different version to York, which is quite site-specific involving a real steam engine. We’re touring to live theatres so we can’t have a real train. It might have been a dampener, and I did think, ‘Oh how’s this going to work?’ But there’s an exciting way that the play brings the age of steam to life. David Simpson’s work is quite clever and Perks also acts as narrator and we’re really hoping the audience will find this an interesting new version,” says the actor, who has TV credits in Doc Martin (PC Mark Mylow) and Dr Who, where he starred in the recent BBC three-parter as a rebel fighter.
Stewart got his chance to wave a flag and blow a whistle after talking to director Paul Jepson and feels that opening the tour at Newcastle Theatre Royal fits perfectly with Tyneside’s rail pioneering Stephenson family.
Did he immediately book a ticket for Bernard Cribbins’ 1970 film version of Perks? “No, that’s not my approach. I’m aware of the film and have often seen parts of it on TV over the years, but I wouldn’t go and watch another performance of the same role. I suppose I’ve come more from the angle of him being a character that engages the interest of children. That’s been my focus. He becomes a little bit of a surrogate father to the three children Roberta (Millie Turner), Peter (Vinay Lad) and Phyllis (Katherine Carlton). The train stuff is his place of work and the backdrop to how they all meet, but I’m interested in how the children warm to him,” says Stewart.

Perks plays his part in the intrigue, adventure, joy and jubilation as the youngsters made a new life next to a Yorkshire countryside stretch of railway and eventually solve the mystery of their missing father.
As a dad himself – “I’m quite new to it with a two-year-old and an 11-week-old… and still standing” – Stewart now finds the “Daddy, my daddy” reunion scene involving Roberta to be even more poignant.
“There is a real emotional undertone to this scene for anyone in a family. It moves me now that I have the separation from my family now that I’ve away working. It’s almost ironic that I’m telling a story about a father who is away. The story wouldn’t work if all the piece weren’t in place and it’s also about childhood and what freedoms that children have. These are all topics that come up for each generation as they look back at the childhood they had compared to the next generation. There’s something romantic about the childhood’s of the Railway Children era and also for adaptations of books like Swallows and Amazons (which Stewart also toured),” he says.
Stewart says he wasn’t a trainspotter in his youth, but does recall being allowed to have adventures with other children. “I certainly got on the wrong side of my parents a few times, as they did with me, but we are all still talking,” he jokes.

The actor hopes that his oldest child Arthur will be able to watch his performance on stage during the tour. “At least 15 minutes might be possible, but I’m hoping to be still working in a few years time so that he can come to see something else.”
Stewart recalls touring to Newcastle previously as a drama school graduate in a Pinero farce called The Magistrate, which starred Ian Richardson. “I was 22 or 23 and that was 20 years ago and it was also to the Theatre Royal. I feel very lucky to have had the variety of shows over the years and I’m really hoping to keep hold of all the strands like TV, theatre, film, radio and improvisation. Perks is a cracking role and a play that moved me when I read it, and not all plays do,” he says.

“I fell in love with theatre acting rather than television and I moved to TV because that was where I just happened to get a break. That was a mockumentary series years ago, but I always thought I’d stay in theatre. When I appeared in Swallows and Amazons I was playing the role of one of the children, Roger the seven-year-old. That is a very different experience, and there are adults playing children in The Railway Children. They are young actors, but not children. I get to play an adult.
“I think everyone should try getting back into the skin of a seven-year-old. It is quite liberating and a stress-free world. Someone else provides the meals, washes the sheets and pays the bills and all you have to do is rock up and throw tantrums.”

The Railway Children, Newcastle Theatre Royal, Monday, June 26, to Saturday, July 1. Box Office: 08448-112121 or theatreroyal.co.uk

Source: Tyne Wear Echo