With London under an hour away by train, instead of visiting the West End, there is a rather special show playing at a 1,000 seat theatre in the disused Eurostar terminal at London’s Waterloo Station.
The venue is clearly a stroke of genius and is the perfect backdrop in recreating the classic story of Roberta, Peter and Phyllis, The Railway Children.
In fact Damien Cruden¹s production of Edith Nesbit’s epic tale has taken London’s theatreland to a whole new level and was the winner of the Best Entertainment category at the 2011 Olivier Awards.
Edith Nesbit was the JK Rowling of her day. She wrote a string of children’s books incuding ‘Five Children and It’ and ‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’ a full century before Harry Potter was even thought of and quite remarkably, The Railway Children has never been out of print in over 100 years!
In association with Welcome to Yorkshire, a special stage has been constructed against a single railway track and with the audience seated on either side, the set breaks with the usual confines of a stage production.
The award-winning show which is set in rural Edwardian Yorkshire has been running in London since June 19 and has wow audiences ever since, although it is set to close on January 8.
And its undoubted star is a magnificent 66-tonne Great Northern Railways (GNR) ‘Stirling Single’ steam locomotive. The bright green liveried 100-year-old engine is driven by a giant pair of 8ft high wheels and it chugs between the tiers of seats and brings the action to life.
The story remains true to Edith Nesbit’s original children’s book which was first published in 1906 although today, is perhaps best known for Lionel Jeffries’ wonderful 1970 film version of The Railway Children.
It featured Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren as the children with Dinah Sheridan as their mother and veteran actor Bernard Cribbins playing station porter, Mr Albert Perks. Also in 2000, Simon Nye’s adaptation for ITV scored another coup by casting Jenny Agutter as the children’s mother!
Fortunately Mike Kenny¹s clever stage adaptation also remains true to the original although, rather than using child actors in the roles of Bobby, Peter and Phyllis, they are now played by adults.
With most of the action taking place on a moving stage there are three seperate blocks cleverly manoeuvred and manhandled between the two station platforms it means the staging is whizzing up and down with the actors having to navigate them. Yet it’s all made to look very easy and it creates an incredibly fluid and exciting promenade performance.
The show tells the story of three children who are relocated to the Yorkshire countryside after their father is imprisoned for treason. It’s also an interesting idea bringing adult problems to a child¹s perspective.
While the adults realise the seriousness of the father’s predicament, the youngsters don’t fully understand why he has to go away ‘on business!’ after two men (policemen) come to call at their London house and he leaves with them.
The upshot is, the family who appear to be left penniless and say goodbye to their two servants and butler have to relocate to the Yorkshire countryside where their favourite pasttime is waving at the trains as they pass by.
The children, Roberta (Bobbie) played by Amy Noble, Peter (Tim Lewis) and Phyllis (Grace Rowe), take on their roles with gusto and navigate between the adult characters, mother (Pandora Clifford), Mr and Mrs Perks (Mark Holgate and Elizabeth Keates), the family doctor (Stephen Beckett) and another key character known as ‘The Old Gentleman’ (David Baron) as they rediscover scenes from their past.
From next week, the role of Mr Perks will be played by television’s Waterloo Road mathematics teacher Mark ‘Mr Chalkley’ Benton. It’s a high energy role as he runs and rides up and down the platform on his grocers-style bike. In fact he seems to be everywhere.
The children courageously stop an express train after debris from a landslip fall across the track and then help save a boy who breaks his leg in a tunnel while on a school paper-chase; so naturally the youngsters are rewarded. The railway’s district superintendent presents them with new fob watches while the audience are encouraged to participate in the appreciation by clapping and cheering loudly.
There are various twists and turns in the plot the mysterious appearance of a defected Russian author and a pardon for the children’s father from what was to be a five year jail term; but obviously the star of the show is the mighty steam locomotive and the show’s reaches its climax as Roberta utters the famous words: ³Oh, my daddy, my daddy!²
It all results in a huge cathartic response from the audience who stand to cheer and waved the cast off down the line after an evening full of entertainment and a certain innocence which all too often missing from the lives we live today.
The Railway Children which was first seen at the National Railway Museum in York in 2008 closes on January 8, 2012 so you will need to get in quick.
Performances (which last two hours 20 minutes including an intermission) start at 7.30pm from Tuesday to Saturday while there are matinees at 2.30pm on Thursdays and Saturdays and again on Sundays at both 1pm and 5pm.
Ticket prices vary between £22.75 and £49.75 and you can book by calling the box office on 0844 412 2960 or see the website at wwwRailwayChildrenWaterloo.com
However there are special school rates available on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the teacher going free with every ten children booked. Call 0844 412 4649 or see [email protected]