Ask anyone what their lasting impression of The Railway Children is and they’ll likely say it’s mostly formed by an image of Jenny Agutter halting a speeding train with her red petticoat. But for thousands of York residents plus thousands more across the world, their impression of this childhood classic is formed by a revelatory theatrical staging.
The story, written by E. Nesbit and published in 1906, needs no introduction, but here’s a little reminder anyway; the lives of three children, Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis, are altered dramatically after their father is mysteriously taken away. The children and their mother, now penniless, are forced to move to a ramshackle cottage in rural Yorkshire where they embark on a journey of discovery, friendship and adventure.
The idea for a new theatrical adaptation of this story came to our former Artistic Director, Damian Cruden, years before it was first staged in 2008. Adapted by Mike Kenny, The Railway Children first pulled into the station at York’s National Railway Museum in a temporary theatre space. The production featured a Stirling Single steam locomotive which entered the stage on the tracks originally leading into the Goods Station, in which the ‘Station Hall’ section of the museum is now situated. Joanna Scotcher’s design placed the audience on two facing platforms, with the action whistling down the middle on moving trucks. This design ensured that Bobby had the full length of the platform to sprint for the incredibly moving reunion with her daddy (and also ensuring that there was not a dry eye left in the house).
With well over 24,000 people attending the production that year, The Railway Children was reincarnated again at the National Railway Museum in the summer of 2009. The production then transferred to Waterloo Station in the former Eurostar terminal in July 2010, where it won the 2011 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment, before opening in Toronto in 2011 at the base of CN Tower in Roundhouse Park. It was then remounted at London’s King’s Cross Theatre in December 2014 where it ran until 2017.
In August 2015, it returned to its spiritual home at the National Railway Museum as part of our residency at the museum during the theatre’s extensive renovation work. It was staged in the purpose built 1,000-seat Signal Box Theatre (first used during the production’s Canadian transfer).
The first show to be performed in this temporary theatre was a York Theatre Royal community production the month before. In Fog and Falling Snow told the story of George Hudson, ‘The Railway King’. After, the king of railway shows steamed into the space in a production that starred the actual steam engine from the original 1970 film.
There can’t have been many theatre productions as ambitious and different as this one was; years of planning, hours of work and hundreds of collaborations brought this show to life. If only our rail network was run with such efficiency…
Our production of The Railway Children certainly lives on in the memory long after station lights have gone out. This #WorldTheatreDay, we’d love to hear these memories! Please email us them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Livy Potter