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.