The Railway Children is up to steam

PUBLISHED: 14:37 07 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:18 20 February 2013

Star of the show a 39-tonne locomotive Stirling Single

Star of the show a 39-tonne locomotive Stirling Single

This month a brand new theatrical version of The Railway Children premieres in York - at the National Railway Museum - and star of the show is a 39-tonne locomotive. Tony Greenway finds out more.

So there we were, the whole family, sitting down to a rainy Bank Holiday Monday viewing of The Railway Children. And, as always, when we got to the 'Oh, Daddy, my Daddy!' scene, I had to pretend that, oooh, there was something in my eye.

I took consolation in the fact that it wasn't just me: millions of men around the country were doing the same thing. I mean. Come on, you have to have a heart of pure granite to sit through this classic Lionel Jeffries-directed tearjerker without blubbing at least once.

Award-winning children's playwright Mike Kenny agrees, although he came to appreciate The Railway Children's emotional charms quite late in the day. 'I had only a hazy memory of the 1970 film version, except for the iconic moment when Bobbie ( Jenny Agutter) sees her father on the station,' he says.

'Frankly I was a bit old for it when it came out. I was 18 by then, the 1960s had just happened, I'd gone off to college in London and nostalgia was the last thing on my mind.When I did watch it again, the moment on the station was exactly as I remembered it. I wept buckets.'

The Railway Children has been filmed six times: four series for TV, a made-for-TV film in 2000 and that much-loved movie starring Bernard Cribbins. Jenny Agutter has appeared in three of them: a BBC TV version from 1968 and the 1970 movie (playing, both times, the lead character Bobbie), plus the made-for-TV film where she stars as the mother.

This month, an ambitious new stage production of The Railway Children steams into York.Written by Mike Kenny and directed by the Theatre Royal's artistic director, Damian Cruden, it will take place at the National Railway Museum on and around a Stirling Single, a 39-tonne steam locomotive built in 1878.

For Cruden, it's a dream come true. 'I've done big, big shows before, but nothing like this,' he says when we meet at the Railway Museum.

'This is a space all about trains and the magic of the railway.When I applied for the job of artistic director 11 years ago, I said part of my programme of work would be to stage a production of The Railway Children at the NRM, with a real train. And here we are.'

The show, which runs throughout the summer, is a co-production between the Theatre Royal and the National Railway Museum. It isn't, of course, going to be easy. 'When you're making a piece of theatre which has a real object in it, it changes things,' says Cruden.

'The train is so palpable and so real - because it is a real train! It's a huge character and the audience are sitting six feet away from it.When the train comes in, it goes right into the middle of the auditorium. It's not a "running" train. It won't have fire in its belly and won't sound the same. We have to recreate all of that.'

The York setting is apt. Although the original book, written by E Nesbit and published in 1906, was set in the unspecified south, the 1970 film was identifiably set in the north (and filmed on location at the Keighley and Worth Valley in West Yorkshire). And the story, in case you're one of those rare people who have never seen the movie, concerns three children who go to live in the country when their father is mysteriously spirited away by two sinister men.

Left to their own devices, the children watch the trains thunder past on the nearby railway, and befriend the station Porter, Perks. But where is their father? And what has happened to him? 'I used the book, rather than the film, as my reference,' says Mike Kenny, 'although I suppose the one significant thing I borrowed was the Yorkshire setting.

'What I like about the story is its authenticity. The world feels real. E Nesbit was one of the first - and maybe the first writer - to deal with real children in the real world. There is nothing in it that is fantastic, no magical countries at the back of a wardrobe. The characters can afford jam or butter on their bread, not both. They feel real, nobody's perfect, they are occasionally mean, angry, selfish, but also generous and heroic in an ordinary way. And the conundrum at its heart - the secret that the mother keeps from the children - feels truthful and satisfying.

'And in Perks you have a convincing working class character written without being demonised or patronised. It towers above the work of Enid Blyton, 50 odd years later.'

For Cruden, staging such a familiar story is a challenge - particularly the 'my daddy!' scene because that moment is just so well known it's become a piece of film history. The audience will almost be mouthing the dialogue along with the actors. So what do you do with that scene? Stage it exactly as it was in the movie? Put a new twist on it? Or ignore it? 'You can't ignore it,' says Cruden, who insists his direction hasn't been influenced in any way by the movie.

'It's critical to the piece and you can't skirt round it.We won't avoid it - but exactly how we stage it is dependent on how quickly we can get a 39-tonne train in and out again.'

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