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Subtle and wise: The Railway Children at King’s Cross Theatre

Subtle isn’t a word that immediately springs to mind when talking about a show with a real-life, whistling steam train, right there on the stage. But The Railway Children, a York Theatre Royal production of E Nesbit’s classic tale, had a depth that wasn’t overshadowed by the performance’s show-stopping special effects.

The Railway Children was adapted by Mike Kenny in partnership with the National Railway Museum, York, and in 2015/16 it’s visiting London for the fourth time. £1 from the price of every ticket is donated to the charity Railway Children, which helps people living on the streets throughout the world.

In keeping with the charity’s aims, poverty and displacement are themes running through E Nesbit’s story. The children of the title are part of a well-off family, with a large house and servants, until calamity strikes: their father disappears, and the family falls on hard times. The children and their mother (a stoic Caroline Harker) move to a small cottage in Yorkshire, and live on her small earnings as a writer.

The railway children – Bobbie (Serena Manteghi), Peter (Jack Hardwick) and Phyllis (Louisa Klein) – are played by adults, which works better than child actors given the subtleties of emotion shown by the characters. The children aren’t the only ones forced to leave their home. The role of a Russian political refugee, Schepansky, is acted with moving force by Blair Plant. I found his scenes the most tear-jerking, in what was an emotionally charged play.

But the stars of the show for me were Martin Barrass and Moray Treadwell, who play Mr Perks** and the Old Gentleman respectively. Mr Perks is a proud man who manages to feed and clothe a large family on a meagre salary. His moment in the play comes when the railway children hold a collection in the village for his birthday, and he obstinately refuses the ‘charity’ of the villagers. And although the Old Gentleman doesn’t have a large role, Treadwell’s on-stage gravitas gives him a commanding presence.

**Update: Justin Fletcher, the CBeebies star of Justin’s House, has temporarily taken over the role of Mr Perks. You can read what our journalist thought of his performance here.

And then, there’s the train. It was the prospect of a real train in a theatre that grabbed my son – he badgered me all the way there with questions about how that might be possible – and the scene when the train first appears was possibly the most dramatic I’ve experienced in a theatre. The layout of the pop-up Kings Cross Theatre, with people sitting along the edge of the ‘platforms’, means that nobody’s too far from the action. And although people sitting right at the end of each row may have had to crick their necks at times, Damien Cruden’s direction managed to prevent any drama from being lost at one edge of the stage. The only slight downside was the end sequence, when the children are reunited with their father. The on-stage smoke obscured some of the action, and the characters were too far away from me, for it to be the incredibly emotional scene I’d have expected.

My son has just turned six, and was a good age for this performance. It’s played over two halves of around an hour long, with an interval. He became twitchy at times, but would quickly be reeled back in by some dramatic activity – like drapes made to look like the dark walls of a tunnel, or the rolling platform used as a ‘train’ when the genuine model wasn’t on stage.

I read The Railway Children when I was just a little older than him, but the wisdom of its messages was rather lost on me then. Watching the play as an adult, I was surprised at just how much of it – poverty, refugees, war – is current today. It’s not a cheap performance, but I’d say that the colossal amount of work and effort that have gone into the splendid set, make it worth the expense.

The Railway Children is booking at Kings Cross Theatre until January 2017. Tickets are £25.00-£49.50, with 25% off for Under 16s, and premium seats available at £69.50. £1 from every ticket goes to railwaychildren.org.uk and a selection of local charities. We were given tickets for the purpose of this review. All views are my own.

56 Comments

  • Sarah Bailey
    November 30, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Wow I can’t believe they use such a train that is amazing, I used to love the Railway Children. x

    Reply
  • Penny A Residence
    November 30, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    This sounds incredible Nell, really loved your review, I might have to try and get down to London with the kids over the holidays – I feel theatre deprived at the moment.

    Reply
  • Sonia
    December 1, 2015 at 10:55 am

    I used to love The Railway Children, this looks and sounds amazing!!

    Reply
  • Cass@frugalfamily
    December 1, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    This sounds amazing – I think there’s lots to be learned from the book for our children and seeing it brought to life would be brilliant x

    Reply
  • Jen
    December 1, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    We saw this in York and loved it Amazing

    Reply
  • Sonya Cisco
    December 2, 2015 at 10:26 am

    It looks and sounds totally magical, I loved the story as a little girl and would love to see the show.

    Reply
  • Mums do travel
    December 3, 2015 at 9:20 am

    I’ve wanted to see this show for a while and it’s great to read such a thorough review. I adore the book and the film and it sounds like this show really do them justice.

    Reply
  • Globalmouse
    December 4, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Wow this looks absolutely amazing! I love going to the theatre and this looks like a really spectacular show! Definitely on the list!

    Reply
    • Nell
      December 5, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      It’s pretty awesome. A special show that I’m glad we were able to see.

      Reply
  • Kara
    December 6, 2015 at 8:59 am

    The railway children was my favourite film as a child – I would so love to see this

    Reply
  • stephen
    December 6, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    I have never read or seen the Railway Children, so I can only say how amazing it sounds from the perspective of someone not in the know.

    Reply
  • Charly Dove
    December 11, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Oh wow this sounds amazing, what a show. I remember the Railway Children from my childhood, used to absolutely love it. You’ve reminded me we must get to the theatre again, it’s been ages. I hope the Christmas plans are going well, we’re somewhat behind! And it’s Poppy birthday on Christmas Day too!

    Reply
  • Tanya
    December 11, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    I haven’t been to the theatre in years!This looks fab

    Reply
  • Emma Raphael
    October 7, 2016 at 7:45 am

    That sounds wonderful. I am not really into the big singing/dancing “Disney” style musicals. Mind you, the last one we went to see in London was War Horse which (although fantastic!) was probably not the best at 7 months pregnant. I sobbed through nearly all of it! 😀

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 7, 2016 at 1:29 pm

      Oh no! This was definitely more theatre than musical. For such a large-scale production, it felt quite intimate.

      Reply
  • Alice Project: Wanderlust
    October 7, 2016 at 8:02 am

    I have been wanting to see this show for the longest time! It still looks as fabulous as day one

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 7, 2016 at 1:29 pm

      You should definitely go! It’s on till Jan so there’s still time.

      Reply
  • Mini Travellers
    October 7, 2016 at 9:03 am

    I couldn’t agree with this review more we all adored the show too and the girls were stunned when the train arrived. It was a wonderful show and I can’t recommend it highly enough either! Lovely new linky Nell #CulturedKids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 7, 2016 at 1:34 pm

      Thank you Karen! I’d happily see this show again. Loved it.

      Reply
  • Hatty UWANOGHO
    October 7, 2016 at 9:23 am

    It has to be a winner if there’s a real train in it!

    Reply
  • Phoebe | Lou Messugo
    October 7, 2016 at 10:00 am

    This is the sort of thing I miss living in France, I’d love to take my kids to see this show. I was a big fan of The Railway Children when I was a kid and this production sounds pretty impressive.

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 7, 2016 at 1:42 pm

      Yes, we’re very lucky to have this on our doorstep. Mind you, your place is pretty wonderful too, by the looks of things!

      Reply
  • Marta
    October 7, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Wow, this sounds like a great show: my son is 6 and, a bit like yours, I can imagine him getting a bit restless at times but all would be forgotten once the locomotive comes in ! I have been looking for an excuse to go to London, I believe you just gave me one!

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 7, 2016 at 1:43 pm

      Ah brilliant! You won’t regret going to see it – it’s fantastic.

      Reply
  • Joanne Mallon
    October 7, 2016 at 10:40 am

    Oh that sounds fantastic, how brilliant to have a real live train in the show. #CulturedKids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 7, 2016 at 1:43 pm

      That really was a first for me!

      Reply
  • Catherine's Cultural Wednesdays
    October 7, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    Sounds stunning, when we walked past the ticket office in the summer the junior CW’s said that they wanted to see it. Note to self, book tickets!
    #culturedkids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      It really is fab.

      Reply
  • Trish @ Mum's Gone To
    October 7, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    I hadn’t thought about this as a theatre production for adults but, of course, it has many levels and, as you say, quite contemporary messages.
    There’s something very special about live theatre anyway but this production sounds as if it has the wow factor with the train, making it one for creating memories
    Love your new linky – wishing you every success with it.
    #CulturedKids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:39 pm

      I know – my son still talks about the performance now.

      Reply
  • Elizabeth (Wander Mum)
    October 7, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    Great review and the set sounds incredible. I’ve been intrigued by this show for a while although my eldest daughter is a bit young for it at the moment. I can imagine Justin Fletcher does a good job too. Thanks for hosting #culturedkids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:39 pm

      And thanks for joining in!

      Reply
  • Cathy (Mummytravels)
    October 7, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    That’s amazing that they have a real train – what an impressive production and a great review. I really would love to take my daughter to the theatre more. #culturedkids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:39 pm

      So much work had been put into. Impressive stuff.

      Reply
  • Claire at Tin Box Traveller
    October 8, 2016 at 10:40 am

    I can’t wait to take my girls to this kind of show. They would definitely be at the wiggly end of the audience spectrum at the moment. I’d love to see the scenes that you describe with the train. It mind boggling to think how they make it all possible. Clever stuff! #CulturedKids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      Yes, it’s not one for teeny tots – but my son loved it.

      Reply
  • tots2travel
    October 8, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    Especially poignant and powerful now. Sounds an excellent performance.
    #culturedkids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      Yes, it was very relevant in the current climate.

      Reply
  • Megan - Truly Madly kids
    October 8, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    I still have to see this show, can’t believe we haven’t done it yet! #culturedkids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:46 pm

      Ooh don’t let it escape you!

      Reply
  • Ting MTM
    October 8, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    What a fantastic and in depth review of what sounds a wonderful production. I grew up with The Railway Children so know I would enjoy this – not sure Monkey would yet though. May have to wait a few years! Thanks so much for hosting #culturekids – and best of luck with it! x

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:47 pm

      Thank you Ting! Thrilled you were able to join in. x

      Reply
  • Sarah Ebner
    October 9, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    This has been on our list for a long time, as I know my son would love it! My daughter saw it a few years ago, but with her grandparents and thought it was great. Such an emotional story and the staging sounds fantastic.
    PS loave #culturedkids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:48 pm

      Thank you Sarah! The show’s great – do go and see it if you get a chance.

      Reply
  • Jennifer Howze
    October 10, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Wow! It feels like this production really brings the experience to life. I love the idea of sitting on the “platform” to watch the action. Thanks for posting! #CulturedKids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:49 pm

      And thank YOU for joining in, Jen!

      Reply
  • chocolateandwineandillbefine
    October 10, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    This sounds amazing! I think my children are a bit young but I would be very keen to go. I am sad that Martin Barrass isn’t playing the role of Mr Perks at the moment – I would absolutely love to see him on stage in London (I have only ever seen him in the York Theatre Royal panto (about 28 times), and would love to see him play a more serious role). Saying that, I can’t imagine seeing Justin Fletcher playing anythign serious either so that would be very interesting too! #Culturedkids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:51 pm

      Yes I missed Justin, but my friend said he was good in the role. Thanks for joining in with #CulturedKids!

      Reply
  • Sarah Christie
    October 10, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    Oh it sounds so fantastic, its great that the show donates to charity too and wow a real train, our boys would love this x

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 11, 2016 at 2:51 pm

      I know, I was particularly impressed by the charity bit. x

      Reply
  • Daisythebus
    October 12, 2016 at 7:47 am

    Kudos to your six-year old for sitting through a two hour production – my five-year old would struggle with half of that! But it does look like it is an amazing show. Thanks for the post and for the #CulturedKids link up!

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 12, 2016 at 10:13 am

      And thank you for joining in!

      Reply
  • Allison
    October 14, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    This sounds like an amazing play! I can’t believe they were able to get a real train on the stage. And I think it’s really cool that they donate a portion of the ticket sales to charity. #culturedkids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 18, 2016 at 6:40 pm

      The train section was so impressive. The whole audience gave a collective gasp!

      Reply
  • Cindy
    October 25, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Excellent review, it sounds like such an amazing production! I can’t wait to start bringing my son to the theatre. #CulturedKids

    Reply
    • Nell
      October 31, 2016 at 12:14 pm

      It’s one of my favourite things about being a parent!

      Reply

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