Bringing 'The Railway Children' to life with 100 young people

Bringing 'The Railway Children' to life with 100 young people

Writer Janys Chambers returns to the Octagon with a brand new adaptation of 'The Railway Children', written to be performed by 100 young people!

What's it like adapting a story for the stage?

The process of adaptation is both a huge responsibility and hugely exciting. I love writing scripts of all kinds, but adaptations of novels both liberate and challenge the writer: they liberate you because you don't have to make a story up - there's a story there already; and they challenge you, because how can you turn all those hundreds of pages into a 90-minute play? How can you do justice to the spirit of the writer, and stay true to the book? Most of all, how can you do justice to the imagination of the loyal readers of the book?

The first thing I do is read the book lots and lots of times. Then read it some more. Then I hide the book and don't usually look at it again while I'm writing, unless it's for a fact I need. So I'm using it more like a reference book. Usually, the things that have stuck in my head by then are the vivid bits of story and action that make the drama. 

What opportunities do you have when writing a piece for so many young people?

It makes me think about what characters could people the world of the play. There are the offstage characters in the book that can be brought into the story, but the challenge makes me think more theatrically - so that I look at a human, animal, and theatrical landscape. Could there be narration here, could there be a chorus, could there be a song? 

What do you like the most about The Railway Children?

I am a huge admirer of the work of writers like Frances Hodgson Burnett and E. Nesbit, women who revolutinised children's literature which had formerly always been downright dull. For the first time ever, real children were put centre-stage; children who argue and fight and make jokes and mistakes and have adventures.

Why do I love The Railway Children? The writing is simply very good. I am passionate about good writing and Nesbit has great style. There is terrific humour in her books which bubbles through the equally vital emotion running through the book. We laugh with, but also care about, these characters. I also love the rural world of the story. Above all, I respect that throughout all of the comedy and throughout all of the adventures, these "benignly neglected" children do their best to hold steadfastly to something we need at the moment - hope;  and to those old-fashioned principles, love and kindness.

What's the best story that you have adapted?

Mmm, that's a hard one. The Railway Children - because it's the one I'm working on now! I also really enjoyed working on the unpublished manuscript of a life of Emilie Hawkes Marshall, an early female news reporter, which I was given to adapt for a series of plays called Sirens of Fleet Street about pioneering female journalists for BBC Radio 4. 

I have a huge soft spot for My Family and Other Animals, which I adapted for both BBC Radio 4 and for York Theatre Royal. I am a complete Grecophile and once again this book is full of humour, joy and light.


This one is tricky because I read everything the wrong way round. We didn't have any children's books in the house when I was a child and only about a dozen adult ones. Luckily these included a few classics as well as books about cookery, gardening and biographies - all of which I also read. So my childhood favourites were Jane Eyre; H. A. Guerber's Myths of Greece and Rome; Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities; Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare; and Austen's Emma. For this strange diet, I am now actually very grateful. They taught me a great deal.

When I was older, I read children's books and fell in love with them all. The ones that still stand out (apart from The Railway Children) are The Secret Garden and Burnett's lesser-known book A Little Princess; Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series; Penelope Farmer's scary Charlotte Sometimes; the best work by one of the greatest stylists of them all, the little-known William Mayne; Alan Garner's exquisite Stone Books; and Phiippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden. As an adult, I’ve really enjoyed Mallorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series too.  But there are so many new ones out there I don’t know…  Anyone send me some titles?

The Railway Children is the Octagon's 2017 Summer Project, involving 100 young people and a cast of professional actors. You can see the production in our main auditorium from Thu 17 - Sat 19 August.