Paul Jepson, director of The Railway Children and artistic and executive director fo Exeter Northcott Theatre, talks about the production and what it means to the theatre.
Does The Railway Children have any special significance to you?
It’s a story I remember reading as a child – and of course the Lionel Jeffries film – and the thing about it is that we all know that world doesn’t really exist anymore, yet at the same time we all yearn for it, because it promotes a tremendous sense of community and decency and trust that is missing from metropolitan life. You do see glimpses of that from time to time. When my family and I moved from London to Devon seven years ago, one of our neighbours left us a lemon cake on our doorstep just after we arrived, which was a lovely gesture of neighbourliness and welcome.
Who do you hope the production will appeal to?
Well, it’s a classic family show isn’t it? The children will want to see the train and I suppose the adults love it for that nostalgia for a lost age of kindness and community. It has that intrinsic family charm and innocence you don’t find very often now.
How will it be different from the long-running London production?
The production at King’s Cross, which actually started life in York, was only available to people in those parts of the country,so we wanted to come up with a clever way of realising the story in a variety of venues. So I called up my friend Tim Bird who is a brilliant video designer to help me achieve that. He is using a combination of printed backdrops and pre-filmed projections to evoke the scenes involving the railway. We are also playing around with perspective. So we’re creating a video landscape but in a very theatrical way. I think it has the potential to be more effective than using a real train, which looks great but has to move very slowly. By using video, you can make those scenes a lot more dramatic and impressive.
Basically, there are two big train moments in the show, and your job is to make sure they pack a punch. There are actually a lot more challenging things for the director, such as getting the furniture on and off the stage, and ensuring a smooth transition
from one scene to the next. It’s quite a busy show, so it is important to make it feel light and fluid.
Aren’t you daunted by the technical challenges?
Not really, you have to embrace them. That’s part of making a modern design work. I know Tim and I trust him completely. We worked together on Betrayal, my first show at the Northcott, although this show is much more complicated.
How does the Northcott come to be co-producing it with Nick Brooke?
Nick Brooke suggested it to us, and I thought it sounded right for the Northcott. We have a strong family audience,which is growing. Nick and Kenny Wax have produced a lot of children’s shows together in the past. Nick Brooke Ltd and the Northcott are sharing the cost of the production; then Nick will take it out on tour.
I know you’re very keen to encourage local participation in the Northcott. Will you be using any talent from the south-west?
Yes, I’ve cast three small roles from people in the southwest. There is a lot more student engagement with the Northcott than there used to be. The student attendance is up by 45 per cent. Of course, there is still more to do. We have a thriving education and outreach programme. Exeter College Performance Academy, launched last September with a small cohort, is a partnership between University of Exeter, the Northcott and Exeter College. We’re hoping it will be an exciting way for young people to develop an interest in the theatre. We intend to help with placements where we can.
The Railway Children runs at Exeter Northcott from Fri 16 – Sun 25 June before embarking on a major UK tour.