The Railway Children: all aboard for a novel night out in London
It’s shortly after rush hour and we’ve just arrived at London’s King’s Cross station. The last few commuters are work-wearied, quietly thrilled to be heading home. Some on the platform clutch beautiful bouquets, jittery with nerves as they await the arrival of loved ones. Those lucky enough to be off on a city break to Paris sit smiling with friends, sipping cappuccinos in cafes before their departure time. All are excited about the prospect of their imminent journeys and the places they’ll be whisked off to – none more so than us. Our journey is to be a little different though; we’ll be travelling in time to a place where our childlike imaginations can roam free.
It’s 1905 in our station waiting room. Well-worn brown luggage cases are piled up around us and men in green waistcoats offer sugars for our coffees from glass jars. A whistle blows just as our hands are diving in to paper bags filled to the brim with pick ‘n’ mix sweets; our train is about to depart. We make our way to the platform.
We’re at King’s Cross Theatre, a purpose built venue tucked just behind the modern station. The stage is built around a disused, but very real, train track. The fully immersive experience in the waiting room continues into the theatre as women in corsets ask young audience members their names, and bearded gentlemen tip their top hats. As the theatre lights begin to dim, the wheels have been set in motion: a truly engrossing evening is about to ensue.
Set in the Edwardian period, E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children tells the story of three siblings whose father is wrongly imprisoned for selling state secrets. Forced to abandon their life of luxury in London, they find themselves impoverished in rural Yorkshire. With little else to occupy their time, they spend their days on the grassy verge by the railway, becoming accustomed to the train timetable and eagerly waving at regular passengers as they rush past. Sitting within touching distance of a breath-taking real life steam train, we too are Railway Children.
The cast and script are stunning (as one would expect from a show that won an Olivier Award at its previous home in Waterloo Station), but this production is so much more than just a show. It’s an experience that captivates all five senses, and perhaps a mysterious sixth if you count the overwhelming feeling of nostalgia evoked by the jubilant innocence of the protagonists.
Indeed, if you’ll excuse the pun, this is a show that everyone is able to get on board with. For the children there’s a cheerful education in manners and loyalty, relayed to them through well-enunciated, child-friendly language. (For the adults there are knowing jokes that’ll happily go over the kids’ heads). For theatre fanatics there’s the beautiful direction – choreography cleverly crafted to utilise this most novel of stages. For fans of mystery and illusion there are deep, dark train tunnels created right before your eyes; there’s steam streaming from the tracks, spilling out on to the platform and engulfing the audience in its powerful mystique.
…and for, well, everyone, there’s the heart-in-mouth moment that the magnificent William Adams Express Passenger Engine steams in to the station. Still utilising its traditional mechanisms, the train must be driven not by an actor, but by a qualified train driver. We defy you – child, adult, train enthusiast or otherwise – not to be overawed by its grandeur, not to be immediately transported to the early 20th century, not to be thrilled by the prospect of where this magical beast could take you.
Lucky enough to be invited aboard the steam train once all cast members had departed, our journey through history continued. Lightly running our fingers over the plush green interior, we could only imagine the lives of the people who once sat on these very seats. Bewilderedly staring at the mechanisms that drove – and still drive – the train, we couldn’t help but feel the unique addition of the real life locomotive makes history and science burst to life.
Let an evening at the theatre be your final destination after a family day out in London this summer. For a novel night – for theatre, a magic show and a museum all rolled into one – The Railway Children is just the ticket.
To get a little taste of the spectacular show, watch the video below: