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.