York Theatre Royal’s production of The Railway Children is a truly immersive experience. The play is staged in ‘The Signal Box Theatre’ (a 1,000 seat purpose-built auditorium shipped over from Toronto) at The National Railway Museum which makes it a really engaging and emotive performance.
With a train track in the middle of the theatre space the seats are split 50/50 either side with your tickets indicating whether you are sitting on Platform 1 or 2. It’s a nice touch and looking down onto the cavernous space that you assume, but don’t quite believe, is going to house a real train at some point during the performance makes you anxious for it to start.
The whole cast stepped onto the platforms as soon as we sat down and started talking to the audience, asking us to make a huge Mexican wave across the theatre. This was a clever way to get us all in the mood to be involved during the evening as all of the characters interact directly with the audience with cheeky asides and knowing glances throughout the play. As the seats were so close to the platforms you felt instantly involved in the drama that unfolded – it was a completely different experience to a traditional theatre where you feel slightly detached from the action unless you are in the first few rows.
The stand-out performances are those of the grown-up children who are looking back and telling us the story of how they became known as ‘the railway children’. Izaac Cainer plays a boisterous, strong-willed and sometimes petulant Peter whom the audience endears themselves to despite his shock descent into petty theft part-way through the first act. Beth Lilly plays youngest child Phyllis beautifully with her funny asides and comic, brutally honest admissions that she “Has no idea what [she] is saying most of the time!”. Eldest sister Roberta, or Bobby, is played by Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey who effortlessly captures her struggle between being a carefree child having fun and having some rather grown-up responsibilities and decisions thrust upon her as the story progresses.
Martin Barrass’ portrayal or Mr. Perks provides most of the humour in the play with lots of jokes and some physical comedy on the platform edge. However, rather unexpectedly from his mostly jovial performance for the first half, his performance is central to one of the most emotive scenes in the play that captures the difficulties faced by the families in the village of Haworth.
The design of the set and the coordination of the actors with the set ‘drivers’ is second to none. Throughout the play three big square blocks of stage are constantly pushed up and down the tracks to create people’s houses, the station and train carriages, with the actors walking on and off seamlessly like they are on a static stage. With such a constrained space to create lots of different settings it is a really clever way to move people and props around. At one point a tunnel is created by semi-transparent black curtains being pulled across each side as the actors travel down in-between them.
One of the most pivotal points in the story is when the children help to avoid a major train crash with their quick-thinking under pressure. After not seeing a real train up until this point, as the sound of an approaching engine got louder I expected to see some of the stage blocks coming on to represent the train but instead a full-size steam train rolls in – definitely an impressive site and not something you see during normal trips to the theatre.
After starting life in York in 2008, the Olivier Award winning production of The Railway Children has since been staged in London’s Waterloo Station, Kings Cross Theatre and in Toronto. The quality of the production is reflected in the fact that almost every run of the show has been extended two or three times to meet demand and many of the performances selling out. It really is a special and unmissable opportunity to see The Railway Children upon its return to its home city seven years later in such a special setting.