We don’t need to tell you that The Railway Children is one of the country’s best-loved children’s stories. Edith Nesbit’s 1906 novel about three London children who are forced to make their own fun on a rural railway after their father is wrongly imprisoned and their mother is struggling to make ends meet has delighted children for generations.
It’s so popular that when York Theatre Royal decided to stage their own version at the National Railway Museum in 2008 they won Best Entertainment show at the Olivier Awards (beating all the big West End productions) and the show was taken worldwide from London’s King’s Cross Theatre to Toronto, Canada. Now it’s back in York due to rather vocal demand – audiences were so outraged that they couldn’t get tickets the first time that they wrote to the local press and anybody else who’d listen.
So what’s all the fuss about? Forget your fancy Georgian theatres with polished stages and big sweeping curtains, this production will take The Railway Children back where it belongs – the well-oiled tracks of York’s National Railway Museum. The show will be staged in a purpose-built, 1,000-seater theatre which has been modelled on a traditional railway platform, with the audience seated trackside.
Sounds exciting, but how will it work? The sets will be brought along the tracks on lorries, the actors will perform in the round and the principal actors will be on stage for the full two and a half hours (don’t worry, that includes an interval) – phew, we just hope they don’t run out of steam.
The star of the show is one big hunk of metal – the Great Western Railway Pannier Tank 5775 to be precise. Feeling bemused and uninspired? Wait for it... this is the original locomotive used in Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 film of The Railway Children. You don’t need to be a trainspotter to appreciate that. She’s been restored and repainted in the caramel-brown livery seen in the film and will move along the tracks during the production.
But it’s not all about the train (if you believe that, you’ll believe anything), the show features a host of Northern actors, including Martin Barrass and Berwick Kaler (who we’re more accustomed to seeing throwing custard pies, pulling stunts and issuing gags as the dame and sidekick at York Theatre Royal pantomimes), Andrina Carroll (Between Two Women) and Jacqueline Naylor (Brassed Off).
The Railway Children will also help to launch the career of one up-and-coming York actor, Izaak Cainer, who will stoke the fires for the first time as Peter. After graduating from York College, Izaak was caught by the bright lights of London and went off to study at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. The Railway Children will be his biggest part to date and should set him off on the right track.
‘It’s really nice to be back,’ he tells us. ‘It’s only once you’ve left a place that you realise how beautiful it is. I love London and York in different ways, but when you step off the train in York you can see how different the pace of life is. In London everyone is an enemy and they all have places to be, but the minute I arrive back into York I relax.’
The show will be a bit of a theatrical homecoming for Izaak who spent his childhood years watching shows at York Theatre Royal. ‘It’s the place that sparked my love of theatre,’ he declares. ‘My birthday is in January so when I was little we used to go to the panto religiously every year. Now I’ve suddenly been thrown into a rehearsal room with Berwick and Martin, which is really nice but a bit surreal.’
But it’s not the other actors Izaak needs to worry about. We wanted to know if he was worried about being upstaged by a train? ‘Absolutely,’ he laughs. ‘The most exciting thing on that stage isn’t going to be us, those children will be screaming for the train. I have a lot of sisters and subsequently lots of nephews and it’s really nice that they can come and see the show, but I suspect they may be more excited about the steam train than watching me perform.’
He doesn’t seem too fazed. In fact, Izaak’s own excitement about the show is probably what will guarantee its success. ‘We got to go and visit the train the other day for a photo shoot and it was really exciting,’ he coos, ‘I suddenly became a 10-year-old boy again.’ We will all see that young boy reemerge on stage this August. With a wealth of childhood memories behind him – he visited the National Rail Museum himself as a child and regularly squabbled with his own siblings – we’re sure Izaak will give a first class performance.
There are so many reasons to go and see The Railway Children, but we think Izaak sums it up best: ‘It’s such a classic tale that everyone has memories of it and a strong connection to it emotionally. It’s a story that has universal qualities for kids and adults alike.’
In fact, you could say it’s just the ticket.
The Railway Children
31st July–5th September
The Signal Box Theatre @ National Railway Museum