First produced by York Theatre Royal and the National Railway Museum, York in 2008, I had seen and fallen in love with this version of The Railway Children during its London première at Waterloo Station in 2010, and was therefore excited to see it its latest home; a custom-designed tented structure located behind King’s Cross Station seating 1,000 and complete with a ‘ticket office’ at the entrance and an Edwardian-style ‘waiting room’ bar area, furnished with vintage travel signs, leather luggage and memorabilia on loan from The National Railway Museum, where the production will return this summer following a £4.1 million redevelopment project.
There have also been significant improvements to the production itself, not least the much earlier appearance of the vintage locomotive, and the addition of carriages and ‘passengers’. This time around The Railway Children are played by adult actors: Roberta or ‘Bobbie’ (Serena Manteghi), Peter (Jack Hardwick) and Phyllis (Louise Calf), all of whom manage to convince us thanks to adopting child-like mannerisms and speech.
The lighting, sound effects and mist make for an extremely atmospheric opening, with the action taking place on and around the railway track and the audience seated on either side. Using platforms which glide up and down the gulley of the track and a bridge at the far end, allowing the actors to cross over, despite the challenges that this unusual stage poses, writer Mike Kenny, director Damian Cruden and designer Joanna Scotcher succeed in conveying Edith Nesbit’s wonderfully evocative tale to an audience of varying ages.
The story examines a child’s perception of the mysterious adult world and our parents’ well meant, but sometime ill-judged determination to keep truths from us they feel might injure or worry. Through the sequence of events that follows Father (Andrew Loudon) being taken away by police, such as the dismissal of the servants and the family’s subsequent move to Yorkshire, we observe Bobbie’s transition from a child into an adolescent and her eagerness to seize the responsibility which being the eldest of the siblings entails. Serena Manteghi is so well suited to the motherly tomboyish little girl that it’s easy to forget that she in reality a grown woman.
Practically overnight, and without an explanation, the children’s comfortable middle class existence is ended, with mother stating that a choice must now be made between butter or jam, instead of the former extravagance of both. It is through these hardships and eventually solving the mystery of their father’s disappearance that they discover the true value of friendship, kindness and community and the railway is beautifully symbolic of the fact that this episode will be the most revelatory journey of their young lives.
Whilst Bobbie and her siblings quickly adapt to the routine of waving to the passengers belonging to the 9.15 train, and under the auspice of sending their love to father, they notice a kindly Old Gentleman (Moray Treadwell) who waves back and will become an integral character in the story. Jeremy Swift (best known as Maggie Smith’s butler in Downton Abbey) is well cast as the kind-hearted and fiercely proud station porter, Mr Perks. Caroline Harker reprises her role as Mother and Andrew Loudon doubles up as both Father and the Doctor who generously waives his fees when the children rather indiscreetly explain their straightened circumstances on Mother being taken ill.
From nursing their mother back to health after influenza to preventing a fatal train crash (with the help of the girl’s red flannel petticoats) and rescuing a Russian exile, Bobbie’s surprise on seeing her father on the station platform and her cry of “Daddy, My Daddy”, provides the lump-in-the-throat finale and a happy and satisfying conclusion to one of the most timeless and moving children’s stories. This production is heart-warming, ingeniously choreographed and a delight for young and old alike.
The Railway Children at King’s Cross Theatre is booking until September 2015. For more information visit the website.