A fresh train of thought

It's full steam ahead for E Nesbit's The Railway Children on the stage
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The Independent Culture

The author Edith Nesbit was born in Kennington, south London, in 1858. Her father died before she was four. After moving about a great deal with her mother and three siblings, in her teens they settled at Halstead, in Kent, in a house with a railway cutting at the bottom of the garden.

"Of all her books, The Railway Children draws most obviously on her own life," says Mary Elliott Nelson, who has adapted the classic children's book for the stage. The story of the three children whose father goes away unexpectedly, leaving them to struggle in rural poverty and to wave at the train to London, was made into a film in 1970 starring Jenny Agutter. "When [Nesbit's] own father died suddenly, she spent a part of her childhood missing him and wishing he was there," says Nelson. "Then she creates the fantasy ending in the book when he comes back."

Nesbit had a racy life. Not only did she enter into an open marriage with her husband, Hubert Bland, whom she wed in 1880, but she was a passionate political activist who co-founded the Fabian Society in 1883, a socialist debating group. To earn a living, Nesbit illustrated greeting cards and wrote verses inside them. She then started writing books, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), The Wouldbegoods (1901), Five Children and It (1902). In 1905, she published The Railway Children in the London Magazine and then in book form.

It took Nelson three months to adapt the original book for the stage. "What is important is to make it into a new play," she says. "I tried not to get hung up on the 1970s film." She first adapted The Railway Children for the stage in 2001 for New Perspectives Theatre Company. She re-adapted it for a larger cast in 2004 for the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company, who performed it last summer.

"It is strange when you read something to adapt it, because it is not for the story, but for the mechanics," says Nelson. She made changes, altering some of the Edwardian language. "I cut out terms of endearment that modern audiences don't connect to," she says.

This production, with singing and music, features an old-fashioned station set and a replica steam train. "E Nesbit is an interesting character because many people consider The Railway Children a piece of heritage literature in a chocolate-box past. But she was writing it as a contemporary novel for young readers, in the same way that children's author Jacqueline Wilson does today."

The Railway Children deals with issues of the plight of refugees, prejudice, rural poverty and one-parent families. "She got in a lot of social and political issues that concerned her," says Nelson. This production has been cast "colour-blind", with non-white actors playing two of the children. "Hopefully this feeds into our desire to play up some of the social issues and modern parallels in the book," says Nelson.

'The Railway Children', Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (0870 737 0337) 23 March to 10 April