A famous film version, and TV serialisations both before and since, have ensured that generations have grown up knowing and loving Edith Nesbit’s 1905 tale of idealized childhood, The Railway Children. It was a stroke of inspiration then that York’s Theatre Royal hitched up with the city’s National Railway Museum to bring the book to life in a stirring site-specific staging.
And now, following seasons in both York and London last year, the extravaganza rolls back into a station near you for another summer run, namely the disused Eurostar terminal at Waterloo. Exploiting the hangar-like space that once saw travellers despatched to Paris and Brussels, director Damian Cruden and his team are able to do far more than they could ever have done in a conventional theatre. Presented in traverse, with actors and props trucking in and out on silent floating floors, the imaginative setting by Joanna Scotcher paves the way for a real coup de theatre, when the long-awaited train finally pulls in. Forget the pollution; they don’t build ‘em like that any more.
Mike Kenny’s skillful adaptation of the book owes something to the far-reaching influence of David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby, with a core of spoken narration and illusions created from very little but a dash of genius. The crucial tunnel scene is particularly effective in its simplicity and the landslide that pours tree and mud onto the railway tracks is brilliantly evoked.
Nesbit’s tale of middle-class youngsters plunged into penury and emotional destitution by the unjust removal of their father, carted off and jailed on a trumped-up charge of treason, comes out of the tradition of late Victorian sentimentality. The production borders on the twee at times, especially with the children played by adults, although this is partly explained away by framing the whole thing as a memory trip.
This is hardly teenagerdom as we know it. There’s not a trace of the angst and rebellion and only the merest hint of budding sexuality; these were more innocent times, and childhood, despite the cloud of adult concern that hovers throughout, is seen as a romanticised series of adventures and minor crises.
Marcus Brigstocke is the one known name amongst an admirable ensemble, and he invests stationmaster Albert Perks with salt of the earth amiability. As the earnest trio of children, Amy Noble (Bobbie), Tim Lewis (Peter) and Grace Rowe (Phyllis) shine and Pandora Clifford exudes parental and social concern as their mother. It’s the Stirling Single, a sparkling 60 tonne steam locomotive, that’s the true star though.
This magical evocation of former times is spot on for the target family audience but its appeal will cross the ages and only the most curmudgeonly of cynics could possibly leave without a lump in the throat. If Bobbie’s “My daddy, my daddy,” as her returning father emerges from the steam, doesn’t prick the tears, nothing will.