Nearly five years after it first steamed into London, The Railway Children is back, berthed this time in a custom-built theatre behind King’s Cross station. Arrive by train or tube and you make the journey back in time, stepping from the glass opulence of the 21st-century station down a wooden alley to a simpler age of leather luggage, flags and porters.
The reception area has been decorated with much charm and care to resemble an Edwardian station waiting room (so long as you turn a blind eye to the prices of the merchandise). Once inside the theatre, this immersive theme continues, ranging the audience on platforms either side of the tracks. It’s fun, drawing you into the romance and excitement of travel and emphasising the significance of journeys, both real and emotional, in the story.
As in E. Nesbit’s novel, the railway becomes the spine of the tale. It’s the focus for the three children’s adventures, bringing hardship, hope and finally happiness, and it binds the subplots to the main narrative of exile and integrity. Mike Kenny’s touching adaptation and Damian Cruden’s fleet staging drive the action up and down the track. Mini, mobile stages whisk in domestic interiors: the children’s London townhouse; their rural Yorkshire home; the station master’s cramped cottage. All this motion also serves as appetiser for the much-anticipated entrance of the magnificent vintage steam locomotive that arrives, like a huge, puffing dragon, at the two climaxes of the story.
There are casualties of the move from page to stage. The shocked bewilderment of the children as their lives upend following their father’s mysterious disappearance is less raw than it might be and their bruising encounters with poverty and with the complexities of the adult world need more edge. But there’s great warmth and heart to this staging. Kenny’s script is light on its feet and peppered with droll asides and Cruden’s production is fluent and witty, emphasising the tight bond between the children.
The central trio — Serena Manteghi’s brave, eager Bobbie, Jack Hardwick’s chippy, confused Peter and Louise Calf’s clumsy, loveable Phyllis — are vivid and appealing, sympathetically supported by Caroline Harker’s troubled Mother and Jeremy Swift’s jaunty Perks. Above all, the moral and social lessons the children learn through their ordeal come through as clearly as an engine’s whistle.