First of all, please let me apologise for my shocking lack of posts recently. I’ve been somewhat incapacitated thanks to a dislocated hip I picked up over the New Year (I wish I could blame it on the drink but I was as sober as a judge!) This combined with the very strong pain medication I’m on has meant I’ve not been able to attend any shows recently, so this is my first show of 2015!
I wanted to see The Railway Children for two reasons. One; I absolutely adore the film (the 1970s version with Bernard Cribbins and Jenny Agutter) and two, as clichéd as it sounds, I am a railway child myself. I practically grew up on the East Lancashire Railway which runs from Bury to Rawtenstall in the North West – almost every Sunday my Grandad and I would ride the train to Rawtenstall and back, occasionally stopping for a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin at the Co-op on the way home. We also took many trips to the National Railway Museum in York, which is where the engine used in the play was loaned from, and I’ve even travelled on the Worth Valley Railway where The Railway Children was filmed. It’s safe to say I’m a bit of a geek in the steam train department!
My Auntie was my designated minder for the day (I use the word minder as I am still heavily reliant on a crutch to walk around, and people do have a tendency to ignore that fact completely and push me out of the way) and before the show we decided to visit the brand new Theatre Cafe on Shaftesbury Avenue. I won’t give away any details as I’m planning a more in-depth post after a few more visits, but I recommend that you go as soon as you can!
After a cup of tea and a scone (how British) we headed back to Kings Cross and found the theatre just behind the station, at the top of a huge gravelled hill (gravel and crutches don’t mix). We both remarked that it was a bit cold that afternoon, and we were a bit worried about freezing to our seats, as the theatre was essentially a huge tent built around an old siding in a goods yard. Once we’d collected our tickets and a lovely usher helped me down to the platform in a lift to avoid the stairs, we found that our fears were not only unjustified but just plain ridiculous.
Entering the “waiting room” was like stepping straight into E. Nesbit’s beautiful book. The entire area was furnished like a railway waiting room, with old fashioned suitcases dotted around and adverts from the era adorning the walls. As I looked around in awe I couldn’t help but notice I was the oldest “child” by around 15 years (it also slipped my mind that it was the half term so really, I didn’t think this through at all!) Seeing lots of young girls with their Grandads did give me a slight twinge as I lost my beloved Grandad four years ago, but it was also lovely to see them as happy as I used to be on my days at the railway. There was another issue – my Auntie hates kids!
As we took our seats I had a good look around the (toasty warm) auditorium. There were probably two children to every adult, all with flags and whistles from the shop in the waiting room. I must admit I was a bit wary, but every child was very well behaved throughout the show, which had just the right amount of crowd interaction and participation to keep even the youngest children engaged and entertained.
The railway children themselves, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis, played by Serena Manteghi, Jack Hardwick and Louise Calf respectively, narrated the story as it progressed, as if they were now older and recounting the stories of their youth, with a little help from Jeremy Swift who played the lovely Mr Perks (my favourite character). The “stage” was a wooden platform either side of a railway line, with a very clever floating segment running on the rails so that the cast could be transported up and down the line as the story progressed. Of course everybody was excited to see the steam engine but they didn’t use it gratuitously, which was a relief. Whenever a “train” went past the children stood on the fence and waved, and clever sound effects combined with very convincing clouds of steam made it feel like a train really was running through the theatre. A personal highlight was when the children wave at the Old Gentleman (Moray Treadwell). The actor sat on a chair on the floating platform and literally steamed along, and it really did look like he was on a train. The children in the audience were absolutely enthralled!
I won’t even begin to try and track through the story of The Railway Children (mainly because I love it so much I can quote it verbatim) but the play was very true to the book and the film. It was particularly impressive how they portrayed the landslide that blocks the line – at one end of the stage was a bridge, used by the cast to get from one side of the platform to the other, and to facilitate the entrance and exit of the floating platform. This was then completely blocked by falling debris and panic ensued as Peter realised the 11.09 train had not yet passed through. As the children waved their flags made from red petticoats (one of my favourite moments in the film) a full-sized steam engine came gliding into the auditorium. The gasps from both adults and children were audible as the train stopped just in time and Bobbie fainted dead away on the line (full credit to Serena Manteghi for that – she was very convincing!)
There is only one problem with The Railway Children which unfortunately I did not remember until the interval – the ending makes me cry. Every. Single. Time. And here I was in a sold-out theatre full of children who clearly don’t get emotional at a mysterious figure emerging out of the fog. I was in serious trouble, especially as I knew that the quality of the acting on stage would mean that moment would feel very, very real.
I started the second act determined not to be emotionally involved as I was in the first, but that didn’t last very long thanks to the compelling story told so beautifully by the three children. As the play drew to a close and, even though I knew what would happen when Bobbie decided to go to the station alone, I could still feel the tears welling up. I was just about holding myself together until those three little words. “Daddy! My Daddy!” I was a mess.
It’s not many plays that can hold the attention of hundreds of small children for over two hours but The Railway Children did it with ease, creating pure magic on that stage and bringing to life a story that I have loved my entire life. I left the auditorium with a huge smile and tears still drying on my cheeks, and if that isn’t the mark of something truly special then I don’t know what is.