THE Railway Children, never read the book, never saw the film, although I’m somehow aware the latter starred Sally Thomsett, an actress I became more familiar with as ditsy Jo in the Seventies sitcom Man About the House.
So, when an invite to check out Mike Kenny’s Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation of E Nesbit’s hugely popular tale arrived, it was full steam ahead, quite literally, as the production in question boasts a fully restored, working steam train.
Hopping on board the Caledonian Sleeper I headed for London where I discovered that The Railway Children tells the story of Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis, three youngsters whose lives change dramatically when their father is mysteriously spirited away.
Moving to a cottage in rural Yorkshire with their mother, they befriend the local railway porter, Perks, and embark on a magical journey of discovery, friendship and adventure. But the mystery remains – where is Father? And is he ever coming back?
Kenny’s production premiered at the National Railway Museum in York in 2008, before transferring to Waterloo Station’s disused Eurostar terminal for another two seasons.
In 2011 a Toronto production opened at the base of the CN Tower and before the company returned to London, this time to the purpose-built King’s Cross Theatre, which boasts two 34-metre long platforms on which the action unfolds.
Arriving there, you find yourself in the Waiting Room of a railway station from years gone by, complete with wood panelling and vintage posters on noticeboards – it’s an atmospheric scene-setter.
Seating is accessed through doors marked Platform 1 and Platform 2. In between the platforms, on which the action unfolds, runs a railway line – cleverly constructed stage trucks manoeuvre up and down the tracks to keep the action flowing.
There’s audience interaction from the get go too. As the production stars Martin Barrass, as Perks, and Suzy Cooper, as Mother, it’s executed with ease. The pair are stalwarts of Berwick Kaler’s legendary York Theatre Royal panto, and quickly make everyone feel at home, whether with a smile, a wink, or a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday Phyllis”.
Designed by William Adams and built between 1892 and 1893, the real star of the show, however, is Locomotive 563 of the London & South Western Railway.
Retired from service in 1945, it was set aside for preservation. Now it’s coupled to Coach No 34 of the Great North of Scotland Railway – built in the 1890s, it is one of just two complete GNoSR carriages left.
Pulling into the “station” at the climax of Act 1, it elicits excited gasps and huge smiles from adults and children alike. This magical moment is what everyone has been waiting for... it doesn’t disappoint.
Despite the epic scale of the staging, this heartfelt production maintains the intimacy to pull at the heartstrings, with a particularly endearing and, at times, hilarious performance from Beth Lilly as Phyllis, the youngest Railway Child.
In London over the next few months? Why not join Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis on the adventure of a lifetime – The Railway Children is now booking to January 8 2017.
And why not make the trip extra special by booking into the nearby majestic St Pancras Renaissance Hotel – chances are you’ll feel you are one of The Railway Children yourself.
A must-see experience.