Towards the end of this magnificent, moving production, one third of The Railway Children, Phyllis (Beth Lilly) advises the audience: "Now at this point, you’re going to have to use your imagination… quite a lot." Yet writer Mike Kenny and director Damian Cruden’s warm and witty adaptation of E. Nesbit’s beloved story - though packed with clever visual flourishes and theatrical gimmicks - really doesn’t require you to use your imagination: it does it all for you, in the best possible way.
Whether you’re familiar with the book or the film, The Railway Children - presented at the National Railway Museum’s innovative Signal Box Theatre, absolutely the most perfect setting for this story - is about as divine as family theatre gets: from the length of real train track incorporated into the staging, to the moving platforms on which the action pivots and slides, and from the epic spectacle of the scary tunnel sequence to the crowning glory of a real steam locomotive pulling onto the stage, enveloping the whole auditorium in the smells and mist of the golden age of trains.
The tale is told by, and of course stars, the titular children, with comic asides to the audience from time to time highlighting their feelings and adventures as they’re whisked off to Yorkshire after their father is wrongly jailed for treason. It is this lingering, sustained yearning for resolution that colours the story while humour punctuates that yearning: and there are some big laughs provided by standout comedy performances from Lilly’s Phyllis, a self-confessed ‘confused younger sister who doesn’t really understand what she’s saying half the time’ and from Martin Barrass, who does a cracking job as the perky porter Perks.
Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey and Izaak Cainer, along with Andrina Carroll, provide the solid backbone of the play as Bobbie, Peter and Mother respectively, and - whether you’re an aficionado of the film version or not - it can’t be an easy job following Jenny Agutter, Gary Warren and Dinah Sheridan, who’ll forever be associated with these roles even 40+ years on (despite even Agutter playing mother in the more recent TV version.) There’s also versatile support from Michael Lambourne as a spirited and rather lovely old gentleman with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, and James Weaver is excellent and amusing as myriad characters of various ages.
The point is, this production of a very famous story doesn’t have to go very far to prove it’s worthily equal to the emotional resonance of the film and the book. Scenes like the paper chase in the tunnel - at which point a huge black sheer curtain is drawn across the entire stage and the actors’ voices begin to echo as the train roars past like a ‘dragon’ - and the first arrival of the steam engine as the climax of the first act, with the children waving their red bloomers to warn of a landslide - are nothing short of cinematic, a word not to diminish the power of theatre but rather to explain the impact: from head to toe, this is a production that you FEEL for the entire two hours.
By the time the engine chuffs into the station for the final scene - and as the house fills with steam and the audience are bracing themselves for the "Oh daddy, my daddy!" moment - this superbly rich and rewarding production will have long melted your heart, and will stay in the mind alongside your treasured memories of whichever is your preferred version of this timeless, beautiful British favourite.
The Railway Children is showing at the National Railway Museum, in association with York Theatre Royal, until 5 September. Tickets are priced from £32.50-17.00, with concessions and great discounts available including under 18s, over 60s and families, subject to availability. Book early for the best seats using the link below.