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Steam Drama at King’s Cross

The Olivier Award-winning stage version of Edith Nesbit’s ‘The Railway Children’ is set for further performances during school holidays this year at its purpose-built railway theatre near King’s Cross.

Set in a temporary venue, on what was once the York Way traction maintenance depot, the show features a stage built around a real railway track.

Star of the show is a 60-tonne vintage locomotive and carriage. The Railway Children was originally staged by York Theatre Royal in partnership with the National Railway Museum in 2008 and ran for two packed summer seasons on location at the museum in York. Then in 2010, the production transferred to Waterloo Station, playing to sell out houses in the former Eurostar terminal. Returning in 2011, the show won the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment before crossing the Atlantic and opening in Toronto, Canada.  The show, which opened at King’s Cross in December, has recently had its run extended to 6 September, 2015. After it ends, everything will be removed ready for construction of Google’s new British headquarters.

Kindness of railway staff

The story of three children who move to a small cottage by the railway in Yorkshire after their father is falsely accused of spying has become enduringly popular since it was first published in 1905. Successive generations have identified with the terror of parental separation, the wish for intervention from a benefactor, in this case the old gentleman on the train, and the rough but ready kindness of railway staff as exemplified by Mr Perks on the station. The story also sees the children taking care of an illegal Russian immigrant.

Staging the production has proved a traction and logistics challenge in its own right. Says the managing director of Moveright International, Andrew Goodman, whose team organised the track and train, with BOS Productions, ‘The steam locomotive, built in 1873 to handle express trains for the London & South Western Railway, was provided by the National Railway Museum. The coach is owned by railway operator Stately Trains and was built for the Great North of Scotland Railway in 1894. These are priceless historic vehicles that need a lot of care – and they had to be moved by road to King’s Cross from Yorkshire.’

Much of the work had to be carried out at night to keep local road disruption to a minimum. The actual train is in fact shunted in to the auditorium, powered by a quiet, battery-electric locomotive brought in from Holland.

‘Clearly it’s important that everything works without a hitch and that the train runs to time for every performance,’ says Goodman.

The lost father

Edith Nesbit spent part of her childhood in a cottage in Halstead, Kent near the railway line – down which she would walk to the station. Her own father died when she was four. The search for the lost father underscores the plot. Bobby’s cry at the  end of the story, when she sees her father through the swirling steam of the locomotive, ‘Daddy, my Daddy,’ echoes Nesbit’s lifelong lament for her own father’s absence and is regarded as one of the most poignant lines in modern English literature.

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