London Without a Toddler – The Railway Children

The Railway Children

Photo credit Johan Persson

The LWAT family has had an addition these last few days. Sadly not a permanent addition but happily one that’s already toilet-trained – my 13-year-old niece Natalie. She’s featured on the blog before, as a 9-year-old, and she even has her own blog nowadays. Check it out!

Anyway, we were looking for fun after a hard day chasing the kids around a North London estate park and luckily I had the perfect soothing treat lined up – a trip to see the newly-extended production of The Railway Children just behind King’s Cross.

So, we dumped Roo and Eva at the station with a man who may or may not be Nathan and headed up King’s Boulevard towards the ticket office. If you want to do similar, this is the exit you’ll need:

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You know that when I say “do similar”, I mean going to the theatre, not the dumping your children on a random man in a station, right? LWAT takes no responsibility for your actions.

The box office is fairly easy to find – as you turn onto Goods Way by the canal and the green steps there’s a giant red arrow which should help you out:

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And just look at the on-themeness of this box office!

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I loved it all already. The seating was on theme too – you could either be on Platform 1 or Platform 2, and the stage was built into both, as well as a floating part in the middle which constantly changed depending on the scene. I was wondering how you’d get 1000 seats onto two platforms, but long rows of 50 along the length of the stage make it happen. And it also means you’re never far from the action.

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From the start, this was an interactive show. The actors walked along the stage, waving and smiling to the audience and stopping to chat – that doesn’t happen very often in the West End. The period detail is impressive and the vintage posters really set the scene. There’s an interesting narrative device where Roberta, Phyllis and Peter are all played by adults but recalling the story from their childhood. There is a glimpse of the characters as actual children at one point, but that comes as a bit of a shock – you’ve become so used to these grown ups playing the characters that you forget that they’re meant to look a little smaller than they are. It made me wonder how old the film actors were in the 1970 version and I bet you’re wondering too. So here’s the answer – 16, 18 and 20. And the 20-year-old was Phyllis! I was shocked too.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the age of the actors in this production does nothing to detract from their performance as children – there’s a youthful exuberance to their actions that completes the illusion. They all run a lot, up and down the platforms and, of course, wave. What would the Railway Children be without a lot of waving? Just children, I guess.

The performance is pretty faithful to the plot of the book with a few theatrical touches thrown in. It feels a little episodic but that is very much in the spirit of the book and actually, the episodes all build to something – the bit with the hamper establishes their relationship with the Old Gentleman, the bit with the coal sets them on a rocky path towards friendship with Perks. It does all work together, but if you’re looking for “Die Hard”-style non-stop action, then this is not the show for you. Why did you think it would be the show for you??

Joking aside, it is a gentle tale. There’s nothing violent or explicit in the story, despite a background of political unrest (see the Mr Szczepansky back story). It is about doing your best under the circumstances, finding joy in the midst of trouble and other such examples of British pluck. No wonder the Americans beside us were delighted with it – it’s the very epitome of Englishness, complete with butlers, between-maids (“What does she do?” ponders Phyllis), grammar school boys and Union Jacks a-plenty.  That’s not to say it’s cliched, it’s just classic.

There is a bit more of a comedy edge than you’d find in the book or the film and that mainly comes from the actors’ asides to the audience. When they mention the whitewashed line around the coal, Bobby urges you to remember that bit…and then Peter urges you to forget it. Anyone who obsessively read the book as a child will know why that’s funny. There’s a few of those moments, but they don’t break the fourth wall so often that it becomes annoying. Most of the time, you get just let yourself get really absorbed in the story.

Of course, everyone in the audience is sort of waiting for one thing through the first act, and that’s the 60-ton “leading lady” – the steam train. Every time they mention a train going, you can feel the anticipation and then the slight disappointment when it’s just a sound effect and a lot of steam. But I was pretty confident I knew the point at which they’d introduce her…and you might know it too. It’s towards the end of the first act and I’ll give you a clue – it involves some underwear. Red underwear.

The train makes another key appearance towards the end as well, and again I felt like I knew what was coming. That was good, because a) it meant I could get my tissues ready and b) I was looking at the right end of the stage when everyone else seemed to be watching Bobby and Perks by the bridge. So I’m guessing a few people missed the first appearance of a top-hatted figure emerging through the smoke but I’m glad to say I didn’t. Daddy, oh my Daddy. Yes, I cried.

So it’s a production that no fan of the book would feel disappointed in. It hasn’t done anything weird or radical with the story but still manages to keep it fresh. I’m glad I didn’t have the kids with me, as I think they’re too young for it – it wasn’t nearly superhero-heavy enough to keep Roo’s interest for 2 hours. I saw some families with young children there but I’d say it was probably one for older kids and adults,partly because of the length and partly because of the subtlety of the story (I’ve been to a lot of toddler theatre and one thing it is not is subtle!). It was a lovely evening out for me and Nat and yes, she cried too.

The show is on till 3rd January 2016 and there are both matinee and evening performances. More details here.

Disclaimer: I received free tickets in exchange for this review. All opinions remain honest and my own.

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