THE RAILWAY CHILDREN – King’s Cross Theatre, London.
In a purpose-built Theatre in the shadow of King’s Cross Station, the classic children’s novel by E. Nesbit comes to life in a beautiful and enchanting way. Adapted by Mike Kenny, The Railway Children is a story of childhood innocence and resilience through difficult times as a family struggle to make ends meet. Full of mischief and adventure, kindness and warmth, it evokes nostalgia for a time long passed.
After their father is arrested, suspected of espionage, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are whisked away from the privileged life they know by their proud but vulnerable mother (Caroline Harker) to a village beside a railway and the adventure begins. Bobbie (Serena Manteghi) feels the burden of protecting her younger siblings from the truths that threaten her family. Peter (Jack Hardwick) suddenly the man of the house and young Phyllis (Louise Calf) do not seem to understand the full weight of what is happening, they just continue on with life, full of the kind of energy and eagerness that only children possess. They touch the whole community around the, befriending the station master (Jeremy Swift), and an old Gentleman they wave to on the train every morning. They even take in a political Russian refugee (Blair Plant), a famous author who is searching for his family.
Joanna Scotcher’s design is a triumph. Extending to the bar and waiting area, you are transported into the world before you even enter the auditorium. Richard G Jones’s lighting design is warm and comforting as well as truly inventive in evoking the thrill that draws the children to the railway. The staging and direction by Damian Cruden is polished and imaginative, even in the quieter moments there is an infectious energy radiating from the stage. The use of a real train at pivotal moments, surely the production’s primary draw, is handled sparingly and greeted with awe and applause. The detail is astonishing, from the period costumes to the music by Christopher Madin, it is hard to find fault.
The story is narrated throughout by the three ‘children’ from an unspecified point in the future, where they piece together their hazy memories of their time at Three Chimneys while simultaneously playing the scenes in the present time of the play. This is a difficult thing to do well, in the wrong hands this device could become forced or confusing, and in a show aimed primarily at children this would be disastrous. But they pull it off to great effect, one moment flowing to the next with ease. You get swept along with the story by the three main actors’ youthful exuberance that you forget quickly that you are watching adults play much younger than their age.
Breaking the third wall and engaging the audience with subtle exposition is brilliant in a family show, all around me children were alert and engaged, absorbed in the story. Although one iconic moment near the end was a little spoiled by an excited young boy behind me, I didn’t mind. He was so clearly enamoured with the show you couldn’t blame him for getting excited. He perfectly summed up just what I was feeling myself at that moment. This play so brilliantly transports you back to your own childhood that I’m sure every adult in the room will feel just as that child did.
The Railway Children is family theatre at its very best. Heartwarming and joyous and full of both humour and tragedy, it will charm and thrill all ages. This is a wonderful production that epitomises what being a child is all about.
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By Catherine Duffy
Booking until 6th September 2015
King’s Cross Theatre, London, N1.