As a commuter, I spend several hours a day on trains. They tend to be hot, crowded and a bit smelly, not to mention usually running late. So it's fair to say I'm not a fan of the railway. But that all changed for two hours the other day, when I went to see The Railway Children at King's Cross Theatre.
The Railway Children story, from the book by E. Nesbit, is a classic - three children are forced to give up their comfortable life in London when their father is arrested, and move to Yorkshire with their mother. There, they meet Perks, the porter with a gruff manner and a heart of gold, and have a lot of adventures all connected to the local railway. It's just about the most British thing you've ever seen; everything's 'ripping' and people are forever being told that they're 'bricks'. At one point I'm sure one of the characters used the expression 'gee whillikins'.
The action takes place on a railway line, with moving sets that are pushed on and off throughout by a ridiculously hard-working stage crew. The staging is ingenious, especially the bit in the tunnel, and there are some fantastic special effects; more than once I found myself turning my head to follow the progress of an invisible train.
The cast, which includes Caroline Harker as the children's mother, and Downton Abbey's Jeremy Swift as Perks, are all perfect. The three children are played by adults, as they reminisce and reenact their adventures, which works a lot more effectively than you might think. But the real star of the show is the full-sized steam train, which makes more than one appearance, and is a genuinely impressive sight, even for someone who hates trains as much as I do. And the faces of the children watching from the opposite platform said it all - they loved it.
And therein lies the true brilliance of The Railway Children. I'm 32 years old, and I'm not ashamed to say that I clapped my hands in glee at the famous happy ending. The three children have to deal with some pretty heavy stuff - losing their father, taking in a Russian exile, even averting a horrible train accident by waving their petticoats - but somehow the play still manages to be fun from start to finish, with an unexpected amount of laughter (and maybe a couple of tears). It's not so much a play as an experience; the lights are up for most of the show, and the actors frequently interact with the audience. But if you're anything like me, by that point your inner child will be well and truly awake, and more than willing to participate. The adventures and dialogue may be old-fashioned, but the joy of childhood is something that everyone remembers, no matter how old we are.
And one thing's for sure - it's the best time I've ever had on a station platform.
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