Grandpa’s Railway

By Flossie Waite
M6 Theatre Company
Unicorn Theatre
2.00pm, 30th January
Ages 5+

Grandpa's Railway M6 Image by Lewis Wileman

Photography credit: Lewis Wileman

All change! Ostensibly, Grandpa’s Railway is about moving forward full steam ahead; learning that change is scary but an important part of life. The real lesson learnt is how cool it would be to have a very big train set.

Colin (Thomas Frere) and Nita (Belinda Lazenby) are moving house to be closer to their granddaughter Ruby. Colin finds packing difficult – he keeps getting distracted by his beloved railway set. Distraught when he discovers there will be no space for his trains in the new house, it is up to Nita to convince Colin that everything will be okay.

There is something lovely about a production for young audiences with only adult characters – Grandpa’s Railway is an affecting presentation of the genuine similarities between children and grown-ups. Grandpa and Grandma have an obvious and believable love of playing and silliness, illustrated in beautifully choreographed routines – from animating the objects they should be packing, to brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed. Grandpa cherishes his toy trains, and this is an interest that he shares with his granddaughter. It is a comfort to acknowledge that the fear of change and letting go is recognizable to anyone of any age, including (and perhaps even especially) adults.

However, both Frere and Lazenby were overly-concerned with how to pitch their performance of ‘adults’ to an audience of young people. Whilst their chemistry was very credible, their  interpretation wobbled between being sophisticated and dumbed down, a common trap in theatre for young audiences.

Despite this, there were moments that were just the ticket, such as Nita and Colin’s song about moving house. The set revealed many surprises, including hidden train engines and a suitcase that ingeniously turned into a bed.  The railway set, designed and created by Joss and John Matzen, was tantalizingly hidden as the audience took to their seats, and slowly revealed to great delight. The set is central to a number of truly enchanting scenes, as when Colin falls asleep and dreams of ‘Straighton’, the railway’s station. The lights of the model buildings flicker on and a moving engine magically appears from the tunnel.

The railway set is rightfully the star of the show but somehow this derails the play: the track and engines are so wonderful, that actually it’s questionable whether Grandpa should part with them. It’s hard to disagree with the little boy in the audience who whispered to his mum: ‘I don’t want it to change.’

(The train came off the tracks in this performance as one very little audience member made a very large commotion, meaning large portions were inaudible. These were some of the most serious scenes – Colin and Nita even sleep in separate rooms as they argue over the railway set. It is difficult to review the whole play fairly having missed such a chunk, and this is why there is no star rating. )

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