Review – The Railway Children, Waterloo Station

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Pah! Punchdrunk? Who they? For some truly exciting immersive, site-specific theatre you don’t need to pack a Thermos, don sensible shoes and set out on a Pilgrimage to the outer reaches of Beckton. You can just drop in to the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo Station (zone 1).

This acclaimed production of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children in association with The National Railway Museum and York Theatre Royal has pulled up at the old Eurostar Terminus complete with its USP of “a real steam train”. And how clever that in the true spirit of Britain’s railway system only 2 out of the 4 washbasins in the gents should be working.

With memories of Jenny Agutter in the famous film waving her red bloomers seeming like only yesterday (actually it was 1970) the Whingers delved into their respective knicker drawers to see if they could find suitably hued undergarments to wave at the curtain call and so complete their immersion.

It would have been so appropriate. E. Nesbit, it transpires, was a bit of a leftie (A Fabian. How Shavian.). The political subtext of her 1906 book was clearly wasted on the Whingers back in the seventies when they were in thrall to the film version with Bernard Cribbins, Sally Thomsett and the wonderfully breathy Agutter. But it’s all there with its tale of wrongful imprisonment, political refugees and poverty (“Jam and butter is reckless luxury”; it still is in Andrew’s house). Yes, the railway children are politically correct, selfless do-gooders; terribly, terribly posh yet utterly, utterly charming with it. Goody-goodies? Charm? Selflessness? Urg! You’d expect to find the Whingers totally impervious to all that sort of stuff and nonsense.

But rather shockingly we weren’t. On the contrary, we absorbed it like sponges And all this with traverse staging too!

Straddling 2 platforms with the audience seated on tiers either side of the track it’s a tremendously wide strip of a performing space. Platforms with acting areas slide up and down the track like beads on an abacus, steam trains are conjured up in the imagination through seat-rattling Sensurround and smoke. You almost don’t need to see the real thing although of course when you eventually do (it’s wisely used sparingly) the 39 ton Sterling Single and its carriage (which is the actual one used in the film) are really quite thrilling.

The episodic feel-good story rattles along agreeably enough. The dialogue is projected with such overemphasis and clarity that the cast should immediately be enlisted as platform announcers. There are theatrical asides and dialogue peppered with overdue-for-revival adjectives such as  “ripping” and “splendid” with sprinklings of  “you are a brick” and “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies”.

The children Bobbie (Sarah Quintrell), Peter (Nicholas Bishop) and Phyllis (Louisa Clein) are played by adults without being at all irritating. They’re rather ripping themselves. None of this should work, but it’s a credit to Mike Kenny‘s spiffing adaptation and Damian Cruden‘s lively direction that it does.

Despite the general busyness and its wide staging (designer Joanna Scotcher) direction and lighting (Richard G. Jones) you always know where to focus your attention, unless, that is, you’re the little madam in front of the Whingers who kept checking her mobile (when she wasn’t rattling her popcorn). There’s also a very effective cinematic use of music. And there’s even un peu en Français again, which is perhaps another new theatrical trend emerging for 2010. But here it’s amusing rather than pretentious as in last week’s Aspects of Love.

The paper chase/tunnel scene is cleverly created and station porter Perks’ (Marshall Lancaster – very good) birthday party is as touching as it is funny. But at Bobbie’s birthday party, where does her Victoria sponge cake terminate after it has been trollied away down the track before the poor girl has even had a chance to cop a slice – Victoria Station presumably?

TRC has already been extended from its original nine week run and is now booking through to January 2011. Forget your pantos with Pammy and Joanie (though, of course, we can’t quite forget that one) this year and indulge your already overindulged kiddie-winkies at Waterloo.

If platform performances can be this good and when TRC finally runs out of steam, might the Whingers suggest the team turns its hands to Murder on the Orient Express or Arnold Ridley‘s The Ghost Train?

Failing that, if children’s classics can be so successfully realised in site-specific locations, how about Stig of the Dump at the Cottesloe?


The Whingers were eyeing up a poster for York Theatre Royal upcoming panto, Jack and the Beanstalk with the almost legendary Berwick Kaler (30 years playing the Dame) directed by The Railway Children‘s Damian Cruden. But since the programme reveals the 2010 London to York journey time as “41 hour (sic) 47 minutes” they’ve thought better of it.

It’s a long time since we’ve seen such a pile of terrible, overpriced tat for sale.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied


14 Responses to “Review – The Railway Children, Waterloo Station”

  1. trpw Says:

    But would you say it’s the best performance by a steam train since Ivor the Engine?

  2. JohnnyFox Says:

    After a beetroot fest in Poland, all my underwear is the right colour to wave at steam engines. Where do I sign up ?

  3. Boz Says:

    I spent an hour at Bracknell train station yesterday. All human life is found there. I think I’ve had enough of trains for the time being.

    I did catch new the ENO / Punchdrunk thingy though. Not quite a wow as their other stuff, but I think that’s probably just me and opera.

  4. Sounds simply spiffing, will have to book.

    Do give the York panto a go. It’s generally a bit of a narrative shambles, but wins the day with complete charm and no C-list soap stars to contend with.

  5. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    The York panto is absolutely sui generis. It’s often great fun, but it’s also often so self-referential that when I went a couple of years ago the audience was full of parents laughing their heads off at the humorous allusions they’d grown up with, and their utterly bewildered children.

  6. Homelee Says:

    I was shocked that a show costing what this does could not offer any hearing enhancement. Given that everyone was miked, it was a golden opportunity to feed voices directly into an infra-red unit and allow those with some hearing loss to distinguish between words and music. (cf: Hairspray, Spamalot). As it was, I sat in the audio dark for two hours (i.e. a big echo chamber) and only held on because of prior knowledge, guess-work and whispered prompts. The feeling that the music was too loud was shared by the rest of my party and others we spoke to.
    As far as the actual content went though, the music was in itself pleasant enough, but overwhelmed, suggesting the creatives didn’t trust the story, dialogue or staging to do their job. Nor did they trust the audience – did they really need to pretend it was a film with great swathes of swelling chords doing the emotional work for them?
    One practical point: ensure you let elderly relatives know that the walk to the stage area is quite a way from the ticket office. And don’t take coffee with you: they won’t let you in, wanting you to buy their own (overpriced) concessions, even though it’s a long walk to the bar. How cynical.

  7. Mags Says:

    Do you think an all adult part would enjoy The Railway Children at Waterloo?

  8. Mags Says:

    Sorry meant to type ‘Do you think an all adult party would enjoy The Railway Chidren at Waterloo?

  9. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    What kind of a “all adult party” are you thinking of? Does it involve car keys?
    In the unlikely event you consider the Whingers to be adults, then yes, we had no kiddie-winks in tow and had an absolutely ripping time.

  10. Mags Says:

    Thanks for replying Phil. Glad you enjoyed the show, decision made, I’ll book tickets for the family – all grown ups now!! So no,it’s not one of those ‘all adult parties’!!!!!

  11. jean Says:

    And children….what about children. Mine is 2 and a half and absolutely mad about the “choo choo trains” especially steam etc..
    many thanks for your help!

  12. […] production has received rave reviews, heck; even the West End Whingers liked it! So expectations were high, as we walked along the now defunct Eurostar Terminal at […]

  13. Maz Says:

    Where is the best place to sit or can you see everything anywhere?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: