The abandoned Eurostar platforms at Waterloo Station have been imaginatively appropriated for Damian Cruden’s acclaimed Theatre Royal, York, production of E Nesbit’s famous story The Railway Children, first seen at the National Railway Museum in York two years ago.
It’s an engaging and occasionally thrilling occasion – especially when the gleaming green locomotive puffs into view along the railway tracks – but there are a few narrative loose ends: how exactly is the children’s father sprung from prison after serving time as a suspected spy? And how does the boy who breaks his leg in the tunnel not get killed by the rushing train?
There’s a lack of real charm, too, in the acting, despite the best efforts of Sarah Quintrell to challenge a still prevalent national crush on Jenny Agutter in the role of the elder daughter in the 1970 movie; Marshall Lancaster to provide his own chirpiness, and chippiness, as the station master Albert Perks; and Caroline Harker to be both firm, and poorly, as the displaced mother, trying to make ends meet by writing sort stories.
Despite the gloomy interior of the Eurostar ghost town, designer Joanna Scotcher has provided a picturesque bridge, signal box and a swishing black gauze curtain for the tunnel. The scenes are played on moving platforms pushed along the tracks by porters. The audience of 900-plus maximum is ranged on either side in long terraces.
The children’s adjustment to new circumstances, bordering on poverty, is nicely framed in the playing of them by grown actors – Nicholas Bishop as Peter, Louisa Clein as Phyllis –looking back on themselves.
And their scrapes with the errant Russian dissident (a bearded Blair Plant) in search of his family, their heroism in averting an accident by waving flags improvised from the girls’ red petticoats, and their friendship with the mysterious Old Gentleman (David Baron) who passes each day on the same London train; all this has the stamp of a vintage Trevor Nunn production without the emotional heft or killer staging.
Mike Kenny’s text toys with theatrical artifice while following Lionel Jeffries (who wrote and directed the film) in his loyalty to Nesbit. The words are often distorted in the ugly voice mics, though Christopher Madin’s recorded music has the right sort of blare and excitement.
The show is an admirable feat of technical engineering, and could easily catch on as a recession-defying summer treat. You can buy mugs, teddies and tee-shirts, as well as the book, at The Railway Children shop in the departure lounge. And there’s even a toy train for little’uns to board in the ticket office area.