Sarah Quintrell talks to Charlotte Marshall about playing Roberta in The Railway Children, why Harry Potter fans should come and see it and how she feels having to stop a moving steam train every night.
CV in brief
2004-2005 BBC sitcom Carrie And Barrie
May 2006 Pygmalion at York Theatre Royal
July 2008 The Railway Children at York Theatre Royal
July 2010 The Railway Children at Waterloo Station Theatre
What/who got you interested in acting?
I think I was very lucky that my parents went to the theatre a lot when I was a child and there was a bit of a child care issue one night and they had to take me with them. I was about six and I went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Barbican. I didn’t understand a word but I absolutely loved it and I thought I’d love to do that. From then on, because I’d managed to sit there and be quiet which no one could believe, they actually started to take me more and more often to all kinds of different types of theatre.
Where did you train?
I trained at Manchester Met. I had two years out [after school], it was always the plan, but at 18 I really felt like I was done with education for a while.
Which do you prefer working on screen or on stage?
I do love doing both. I was really lucky, eight months out of drama school I got a lead in a BBC sitcom with four very established actors so that was a great experience for me. It was sort of like a theatre/television hybrid in that we had a live studio audience. We’d rehearse all week and then we’d perform in front of the audience while it was being filmed, so that was an amazing experience. I enjoy both. I suppose the buzz of theatre is really special with that immediate reaction.
After performing in The Railway Children in York, were you excited by it transferring to London?
Really, really excited. It’s such a unique show; it’s really hard to explain to people what it’s like. It’s a really special job and as an actress it’s quite a challenge. But there are moments that you’d never normally get to play, like standing in front of a steam train and getting to play the final moment of the film which is really familiar to everyone, which was quite daunting at first, but getting to play that hundreds of times is a joy.
To be part of a show that I’m really proud of, and the core creative team are all the same, so you feel really safe. To have that in my home town is just fantastic.
What is it about this production that makes it special?
I suppose the story is so well known and there’s a sense of nostalgia for a lot of people with that story. Also Mike’s [Kenny] adaptation is really interesting. There are lots of familiar moments from the film, but he’s also included other elements from the novel that aren’t picked up by the film. As the three children, we’re much more like normal siblings in that we bicker constantly. It’s much more like the relationship that I had with my brother than when you watch the film and they all get on brilliantly.
The playing space is extraordinary. It’s as close as you’d get to a film set in theatre. We have platforms, we have a bridge, gates and the little porter’s house is there. And then the presence of a steam train. It’s really hard to explain. I wasn’t interested in trains before this but there’s something incredible, the engine is stunning, it’s the kind of train you were just drawn to as a kid and there’s something really magical about it.
How has your experience been playing Roberta after Jenny Agatha made the role so famous in the original film?
I think I had to get over that thing that I couldn’t play what someone had played before, and I had to go with what was in the text and the director’s visual for it and what you’ve been given by the actors.
She’s very much like the novel in that she’s very bossy, she always thinks she knows what’s best. But actually what Mike’s drawn out that I’ve really enjoyed playing about her is the fact that it’s a coming of age story for her, she’s desperate to be an adult. Her younger siblings push her into the adult world, they’re constantly asking questions and expect her to know everything and to solve everything, but when she goes to Mother she’s denied the adult world because Mother won’t tell her anything. She’s kind of stuck in this limbo.
I think Mike has also written a really interesting mother/daughter relationship that Caroline Harker and I get to play. It’s a very complicated and awkward relationship and they kind of battle their way through and I think that’s interesting to play in the sense that that happens a lot with teenage girls and their mothers, it’s really recognisable.
So initially the idea was completely daunting because Jenny Agatha is amazing and so iconic in the film and I was really worried. But actually once you get stuck into the character you’re playing and the version you’re playing, I’ve really enjoyed it.
There is a whole new generation who won’t have seen the film of course…
Yes which is lovely and, for me having my first experience of theatre at six, it’s a lovely thought that there will be kids coming having their first experience of theatre and finding this story for the first time.
Is it frightening when you have to stand in front of the train to stop it?
It is! On the one hand I know there are all these safety measures in place and I know the train drivers and everything so it’s fine in that sense. But when you’re stood on the tracks and that train is moving towards you, it looks enormous and even if it’s going really slowly it’s 300 tonnes with all the carriages, so it would only need to touch something and… So although I know that they’ve reassured me and they’ve worked really hard to make it safe, or you wouldn’t be able to do it, it’s really exciting, it’s more of an adrenaline rush then anything else.
How does the train work in this production?
The train is being shunted, so you’ve got the train – it’s all rigged up with smoke and everything so it looks amazing – and then you’ve got the actual engine and then behind that is the Gentlemen’s carriage from the actual film which we’ve been kindly lent and behind that are the Hogwarts Express carriages which were lent by the Railway Museum. We were quite excited about that! And at the back of that is a diesel with the driver that shunts the whole thing forward. The original Gentleman’s carriage is beautiful; they really used to travel in style.
What else can the audience expect from the show?
I think it should be a really good day out. There’s a lovely little train ride, the Flying Scotsman, in the foyer. The Eurostar tunnel is absolutely huge actually! It’s really exciting, because it’s site-specific and because of the venue it is, it really feels like you’re going on a journey and when they arrive up at the platform it just so happens that that’s where the play takes place.
This is your first experience of working on a site-specific production, how is it different to working on a conventional theatre show?
It is very different. The first year I did it, and probably the new cast would say the same thing, it’s very difficult to get an idea of what it’s actually going to be like. You have to put your trust in Damian [Cruden], our director, whose idea this whole thing was. You find yourself doing things and thinking ‘I’m not entirely sure what this is going to be like’. So in that sense there’s a lot of trust and having to use your imagination to work out what it’s going to be like.
We have a quarter of a mile walk from our dressing room to the stage, pretty enormous! There’s a pressure on everyone because they’re changing a space into a theatre. But it’s such an exciting thing to do and it does make a difference to how you feel going into it and the experience of the production, so I’ve really enjoyed it.
Does the long walk to the stage increase your nerves?
It’s a bit too long really, we all take it together. In a way it’s a good time, out of the dressing room you just get to clear your head on the long walk up the Eurostar platform before we get into the space. It’s a good time to focus and clear your head.
What is your favourite thing about being on stage (or a platform in this case!)?
It’s so hard to put into words! I love the buzz of it. I love that feeling of a company where you’re all working together, you’re all supporting each other. There’s always a great spirit in the company, especially in a job like this which is a physically quite demanding job.
I love engaging the audience and in this job you get to stand and talk directly to the audience as storytellers which creates a really unique relationship with the audience where you feel that they come with you on the journey and are a part of it.
And the worst?
I don’t know, I can’t think of anything terrible! I really enjoy that feeling [before going on stage], I think the higher the fear the more I kind of think ‘well come on then, bring it on’. I love that, I kind of thrive on that. I suppose if things go wrong and you have to think quickly to cover them and things like that. Actually that’s quite exciting at well!
Which stage production you have seen do you wish you had been in?
I saw Anna Friel play Lulu years ago when I was probably still at drama school.
So often I go to the theatre and think ‘I’d have loved to be a part of that’. I saw All My Sons with Zoë Wanamaker a few weeks ago, it’s absolutely incredible, I would have loved to have been part of that.
I think sometimes when you go and young actors play a part that you really like, it does inspire you and it does give you that drive to keep working and keep pushing yourself and challenging yourself. A lot of things I go and see and think ‘Ah, why aren’t I in that?’ [Laughs].
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
At drama school, I remember one of my tutors saying to me ‘know who you trust and whose opinions you trust, and listen to them. Because everybody in this industry has an opinion of what you do and how you do it and you’ll never please everybody, you’ll never be able to make everybody’s visions right, so know who you trust – your director and your company – a handful of people you have around you whose opinions you can really go for.’ At the time I remember thinking ‘okay, whatever’, but it’s so true. Now people can go online and write things about you, then obviously you have the reviews, you have audience members you meet afterwards who say ‘why wasn’t this like this’ or ‘why wasn’t that like that’ or ‘I loved it’ or ‘I hated it’, and it’s lovely but it makes you so vulnerable and I think you can really worry so I definitely agree with that.
In the example of The Railway Children, if Damian’s happy and I think I’ve done a good job, and those handful of people that I have around me who I really trust come and see it, that’s the best I can do.