All aboard for a tale on the right tracks!
An innovative production of The Railway Children brings childhood memories flooding back for ANNETTE LORD
ONE of the many great things about a visit to London is the almost endless variety of stage shows on offer. But which one to choose?
Despite having no children in tow, I was tempted onto a train at Manchester Piccadilly bound for Euston to see a highly unusual production enjoying its second run in the capital.
Mention The Railway Children and of course I think of Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins. But fast forward from my childhood memories of Christmas TV reruns of the 1970 film and I’m entering a 1,000-seater temporary theatre at the back of King’s Cross station.
To some that may not sound very promising, but I was in search of something different to the glitzy theatre shows of the West End and curious how Edith Nesbit’s famous novel could be adapted for the stage.
And we had been promised a steam engine – a live working loco – to boot!
Bare floorboards in the foyer gave way to another unusual set-up as we entered the theatre itself.
The seating - in two blocks facing inwards, separated by the rail track and railway station set - cleverly made the audience part of platforms one and two.
We settled into comfy seats in the third row of platform two and took in the scenery – a Victorian railway-issue cast iron bridge at one end and old suitcases carefully arranged in small piles on the platforms.
This spartan simplicity helped make the performance itself seem deceptively easy.
As in the book and film versions, the three children were the central characters - but this time Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis also narrated, introducing sections of the story as if looking back at their own pasts.
Stage sections were rolled up and down the line as an ingenious way to bridge both platforms for the non-railway scenes and we had to use our imaginations to fill in the detail when a black cloth tunnel was used to represent the railway one. But that was part of the fun.
I always thought the film version was quite light-hearted considering the subject matter, but this stage show has darker elements while still remaining child-friendly.
Peter is caught stealing coal by Mr Perks and the station porter’s reaction when the children get donations of gifts from around the village for his family is an uncomfortable moment.
But, of course, their bravery in stopping the train ahead of the landslide and rescuing injured paper-chaser Jim from the tunnel wins the day as they wait for their father’s return.
Inevitably, the live steam loco was what many people had come to see and left youngsters in the audience wide-eyed.
But this unique feature took nothing away from the actors themselves.
A pared-back set in a temporary theatre it may be, but for me, it is a performance liable to linger long in the memory.
Blinking back out into the light, it was time for some refreshment and we didn’t have to go far.
Across the road from King’s Cross Theatre is a new development, where 67 acres of disused industrial land is being transformed into a residential area with public squares, restaurants and bars.
Blessed with sun and blue skies, we enjoyed rustic pizza and homemade soft drinks in one of the restaurants that have taken over the ground floor of a refurbished Victorian warehouse.
Then it was time to see what London had to surprise us.
I was with a native South African who had never been to London before, so we had pre-booked a hop-onhop-off tour bus to give us a general overview, as well as stopping at some of the main tourist sites such as the Houses of Parliament, Tower of London, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace.
With a two-days-forthe-price-of-one deal, they also gave us a free one-way boat ride on the Thames, after which we drank Pimms on a moored boat bar.
Then to our hotel, the St Pancras Renaissance on Euston Road, linking to St Pancras Station. This building was originally a grand hotel for the wealthy, built at great expense by the Midland Railway in the 1870s and saved from demolition in the 1960s.
Now brought back to life as a luxury five-star stop-over, its Victorian Gothic opulence mixes with 21st century features.
The old booking office has been converted into a bar and restaurant, providing a fitting end to our railway-themed excursion.
The Railway Children at King’s Cross Theatre
Matt Jessup as Peter, Sophie Ablett as Bobbie and Beth Lilly as Phyllis in The Railway Children at King’s Cross Theatre