The producers of this show, in the Programme notes, say:
"The emotional impact of this production is transforming and like all great theatre is not only life affirming but helps define our humanity."
It's presumptuous to call your show "great theatre" before the premiere. And hold on to your hats but there is nothing transformative about this show.
The premise is a familiar one with Victorian British school children acting precocious and running around having misadventures. This kind of theatre has been a staple in Canada for the last 70 years or more as entertainment for children and a reminder to adults of their British roots. This genre has been slowing dying and as evidenced by the lack of people at the production last night, I feel it's time may have come and gone. As mentioned in the Star review, what child in 2011 would be interested in seeing a play where a character exclaims "Gee willikers!" upon breaking their leg?
The script itself is infantile and several lines clunk with a thud that resounds. I spoke with people I went with who said this was part of the writing style of the time, but there are modern updates in the play that fare no better. At the end of the first act, one of the characters says "Were you expecting to see a huge train crash? This is supposed to be a family show!" A line obviously not in the original script and that does nothing but pander to the audience.
There's a lot of pandering going on, with the actors telling the audience to use "all their imagination" at one point and hilarious lines like "Some things were good. And some things were bad. No, come to think of it, everything was good!" with pauses for laughter that she's still waiting for.
Much has been made about the train and during both acts you spend most of the scenes waiting for the thing to come. There are many scenes involving a train where the train DOESN'T arrive. When the thing finally does come so much has been made of it, its arrival ends up feeling anti-climactic. The train itself is very quiet, perhaps special effects could have made its arrival sound more majestic?
Coming to sound, the theatre is not ideal sound wise and with the accents several people missed a lot of the dialogue. I understood almost everything but like all theatre presented in the round there are times when a character is not facing you and whispering that no one can hear a thing. Add to this an insipid background soundtrack and everyone had trouble hearing at times. There is no stage change to show a change of scene from night to day so they play birds chirping incessantly, something picked off the soundtrack for Snow White by the sounds of it.
Actors who stood out were John Gilbert in the small role of "Old Gentleman" and Richard Sheridan Willis as the conductor; he also plays the father, the doctor and the train driver. There were times when the conductor acted to stimulate the audience and make them invested in the story and this should have been expanded, the moments were too few and far between.
Overall the play was not terrible despite its many faults. There is a sense of returning to our British roots, of marveling at a time when people said "Old chap" and "You're a real brick!" But the story leaves you disinterested, watching the events unfold with indifference.