Theatre producer Tristan Baker talks about the show where the West End’s heaviest leading lady is not only delighting audiences of all ages, but is also inspiring marriage proposals …
Take one of the best loved books and films of all time. Add a vintage steam engine, a superb cast and mix well. While the ingredients are blending, crack on and build a theatre from scratch, including a railway track, against the clock. Add a dash of blind panic and garnish with lashings of Edwardian style. Serve to critical acclaim and enchanted audiences of all ages.
That’s the simplified version of how The Railway Children came to life at its new home in London’s Kings Cross. The unabridged version involves so many technical challenges that you could travel from London to York on old rolling stock in the time it would take to tell. Certainly one of the show’s producer reckons that the team who made it happen deserve their share of the five-star reviews.
“I am very proud of the team,” says Tristan Baker, with feeling. “In five weeks they built a one-thousand seat, purpose-built, theatre from the ground up, including laying a train track. It meant working around the clock to get the show on – they were sometimes laying track in the rain at 2am – but they did it.”
And when he says it’s a purpose-built theatre Tristan isn’t exaggerating. Walking around the venue on King’s Boulevard with him, the detail is extraordinary; from the state of the art heating system (to ensure maximum audience comfort), to the unique railway platform stage. Located behind King’s Cross Station, the site has been loaned by Google and will one day be Google HQ. But for now it is home to The Railway Children – “a steam engine rather than a search engine,” laughs Tristan, explaining that the objective was to create not just a show, but an experience.
“It is very site specific. From the moment you arrive and pick up your tickets you are in Edwardian England.” Bang on cue a group of costumed front of house staff surge forwards to greet members of tonight’s audience, directing them to the foyer, which is a perfect replica of an Edwardian station waiting room.
“Our front of house team are all carefully selected and trained to give the audience a really wonderful and authentic experience,” says Tristan, navigating a path through an excited party of teenagers and a group of middle-aged ladies who have come up from Cambridge for a day of shopping, lunch and theatre.
Undoubtedly it is a show with universal appeal. An average audience comprises dating couples, families (from toddlers to great grandparents and all the generations in between), tourists, students, WI ladies, book clubs, Guides and Scouts – people of all ages.
“They are all transfixed,” says Tristan, adding: “I think adults experience it on a different level. Maybe they remember the film from when they were children, or perhaps reading the book, but as adults they realise the political and emotional aspects of the story.” Leaping nimbly up the steps of the bridge that separates the two platforms (the audience sit either side of the track) he stops and looks fondly up at the hefty leading lady, her paintwork gleaming under the lights. “And who can fail to be excited by a three-hundred ton steam train arriving on stage?”
He’s got a point. The magnificent engine is breath-taking. Dating back to 1896, complete with a vintage carriage, this grand old lady is, quite literally, the West End’s biggest diva. Transported from the National Railway Museum in York on a low loader, even her arrival was the kind reserved for superstars as, like the most illustrious celebrities, she arrived with a police escort.
Adapted by Mike Kenny, The Railway Children was first produced by York Theatre Royal at the National Railway Museum, York in 2008. Two sell-out seasons were followed by a transfer to Waterloo Station, where it opened in the former Eurostar terminal and again enjoyed smash-hit success, bagging the 2011 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment along the way. And steaming into Toronto in 2011, Canadian audiences also fell in love with this stage version of Edith Nesbit’s classic story.
Telling of three children whose lives change dramatically when their father is mysteriously taken away and they are forced to relocate from London to a cottage in rural Yorkshire with their mother, the book was first published in 1906. Exciting, with plenty of adventure and drama at its heart (“what happens to the children is quite awful but they are resilient and make the best of their situation”), heading the current cast is Caroline Harker as Mother and comedian and actor Sean Hughes as Mr Perks.
“Sean has just joined us and he brings a joyous warmth to the role,” says Tristan, agreeing that ‘joyous warmth’ pretty well sums up the feeling that audiences go away with.
And it seems that The Railway Children also inspires romance. “We do get a lot of couples coming to the show on date nights and we have recently received a request for permission to make a marriage proposal from the train,” smiles Tristan, as we take our seats.
Long before we reach the end of the last act, with the heart-rending ‘Daddy, oh my daddy!’ line, the reasons for the production’s success are abundantly clear. With ‘wow!’ factors at every turn, this much-loved classic story has been transformed into chuffing brilliant theatrical experience. Whether you’re eight or eighty, it’s one that should not be missed.
Come on now! All aboard!