November 09. 2014 2:01AM
Marshwood students perform ‘The Railway Children’
For this year’s production, the Marshwood students from Eliot and South Berwick are presenting the musical “The Railway Children.”
If you haven’t heard of it, that’s no surprise. A map of the world on the website that licenses the show points to South Berwick, Maine, as the one place now producing this tale set in suburban London at the turn of the 20th century. Marshwood is apparently the sole location where you can see this musical story of a wealthy family suddenly displaced from their home when the father is accused of espionage and thrown in jail. Performances will be 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 14, 15, 21 and 22; and 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21 at Marshwood High School.
How did Marshwood theater director Tanya West choose this particular show, written in 2005 and based on a 1905 novel written by Edith Nesbitt? Selecting a script each year to suit the dozens of children ranging in age from the third grade to high school is not simple.
“The first thing I look for is a show that has enough roles for children,” West said. “Sometimes a show doesn’t necessarily have children written as leads, but they can be in the ensemble. As long as there is a place to put them.” In “Cinderella,” there were mice, in the “Wizard of Oz,” there were munchkins, “Railway Children” has, well, children.
“That’s my number one thing I look for,” West continued, “But the second thing I look for is the accessibility of the material and the music. Is it catchy? Are they are going to enjoy it?”
West also looks to vary the timbre of the show from year to year. After presenting the well-loved and fanciful tale of “The Wizard of Oz” in 2009, for instance, she moved onto the rather dark realism of “Ragged Child.”
“I liked that the ‘Railway Children’ is extremely popular in England, but not a lot of people here in the U.S. have heard about it,” West said. “Here everyone knows ‘Peter Pan’ as a childhood classic and everyone in the UK knows the ‘Railway Children’ as well. I think it’s interesting to bring that over here.”
“The Railway Children” tells the story of the Waterburys, a wealthy family whose conditions change drastically when the father is imprisoned on charges of spying. The family moves to a cottage next to a train line in rural England. Following the daily comings and goings of the train brings them new friendships, including a railway station master and an upper-class gentleman passenger.
Students seem divided on whether they would rather appear in a familiar classic or an unknown musical.
“I like doing the classic, more well-known shows, mostly because when someone asks what the musical is any given year, they’re more inclined to be interested and come see it if it is a show they know about,” said Julian Gale, a senior playing the station master in “The Railway Children.”
Gale does, however, like this year’s show “a ton,” because it hits home with him on a personal note. “My grandparents on my mother’s side are English and I grew up knowing the ‘Railway Children’ story quite well,” Gale said, “and the show itself has a lot of merit to it.”
Senior Tom Fuller on the other hand finds it enticing to act in shows that bring formerly unknown characters alive.
“I’ve always liked doing the shows that people don’t know very well because they fall in love with us as our characters, not as Tom Fuller playing Mr. Bumble or Tweedle Dee,” said senior Thomas Fuller, who was Tweedle Dee in “Alice” last year and is playing a Russian writer in “The Railway Children.” “This way, when we introduce our community to a new range of characters that they didn’t know before then they won’t forget the way we made them feel.”
And for this reason West says it sometimes easier to do an unknown show.
“It’s almost easier because the students have no expectations on how they should play the part,” she explained. “They can create their own character without preconceived notions.”
West found “The Railway Children” on the recommendation of a friend who had seen it in England and loved it. In that production, the story was actually set in a real train station with audience members sitting by the track.
“It’s fun, definitely fun,” West said, noting “the actors are having fun experimenting with the accent, trying to figure that out.” She suggested that sometimes it’s easier for students to get into character if they are forced to take on a different accent and a different time period. “When they physically have to change how they are acting, it helps them put the character on as well,” she said.
The version of “The Railway Children” being performed by Marshwood has book and lyrics by Julian Woolford and music by Richard John.
The story’s original author, Nesbit, born in 1858 in London, based the tale largely on her own childhood. According to her biography, she has been called “the first modern writer of children’s fiction” and her works are thought to be an influence on such writers as P.L. Travers (“Mary Poppins”) , C.S. Lewis (the Narnia books) and even J.K. Rowling (“Harry Potter”).
Tickets to “The Railway Children” are available by calling MHS at 384-4500 or visiting marshwoodmusic.org to reserve tickets. $8 in advance, $10 at the door.