A Christmas tradition in our house, is to sit down and watch the classic 1970 film version of The Railway Children (number 66 in the British Film Institute’s 100 Greatest British Films). This year we went one better and off we went to see it live at Waterloo Station. The holiday season is one traditionally linked with theatre in various forms, from nativities, pantos, ballets, circus etc. This production fitted perfectly well with the seasonal choice of theatre and was packed with all ages. There’s a brilliant article in this weeks The Stage by John Byrne talking about how this time of the year is so important to theatre and I highly recommend it for further reading.
This production has received rave reviews, heck; even the West End Whingers liked it! So expectations were high, as we walked along the now defunct Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo into the specially constructed theatre built over the railway line. As I’m familiar with the story I was intrigued to see how they would create the world of The Railway Children, having a real railway line has advantages no doubt, but would it act as a hindrance to the play I wondered?
As the cast came out onto the platform and interacted with the audience the atmosphere heightened, I really like it when cast mingle with audiences before or after a performance, I know many say it “ruins the illusion” and perhaps for some productions that’s true, but I feel it certainly helps to connect the actors with the audience, especially in a piece like this with a large number of youngsters present.
Mike Kenny has adapted the book faithfully and the idea of having the Children retelling the tale as adults, acting as their childlike selves was a clever idea that worked well. As did having the characters acknowledge the existence of the audience. This is no “fourth wall” production, but seeing the actors masterfully focus the audience’s attention was wonderful to see. This is no mean feat in a theatre where at times the actor(s) can have their backs to half the audience. The use of trolleys with set running up and down the railway track allowed for a more “in the round” feel to the production, and the crew who physically pushed the set up and down the railway got a well deserved round of applause at the end too!
A highlight and “Unique Selling Point” of this production is the real steam train, the Stirling Single that appears in the production. It makes its entrance as the finale of Act 1 and as one youngster near me said as it chuffed into the theatre “Awesome!” The train added a whole extra dimension and its use in Act 2 was even better, especially when it arrives with carriages too.
For me the most memorable scene was the tunnel scene in Act 2, which was a real lesson in how to create atmosphere and creatively present theatre. The thundering train sound effects and use of dry ice whisking down the railway lines is superb and had many of the children (and adults) on the edge of their seats.
The cast gave wonderful performances especially Louisa Clein as Phyllis whose comments and asides got great reactions from the audience and Steven Kynman as Perks who performed this loveable character with considerable charm and skill.
The story itself is a classic and can sometimes come across as a bit twee and sentimental and while the tear jerking ending gets me every time, this production also emphasised the tragedy and darkness of their lives at suitable times too.
As we all departed this 19th century station back to the Eurostar terminal I was pleased to see a whole new generation captured by the magic of this story and more importantly aware of how magical theatre can be when done this well.