For its Christmas show Hull Truck has revived Mike Kenny’s adaptation of The Railway Children

Often when I’m extolling the virtues of the theatre we have in the region, something which I am wont to do, I point, for evidence of Yorkshire’s inarguable strength in theatre towards certain productions.

A scene from Hull Truck’s Christmas production of The Railway Children.  (Picture: Ian Hodgson).
A scene from Hull Truck’s Christmas production of The Railway Children. (Picture: Ian Hodgson).

There’s Sheffield Theatres’ Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which became a movie. There’s the Leeds Playhouse’s Sweeney Todd, which went on to play at Wales’s national arts venue The Millennium Centre and then there’s the York Theatre Royal production of The Railway Children.

Adapted by Mike Kenny, the new take on the E Nesbit novel first pulled into York in 2008, when the theatre was undergoing a multi-million pound refurbishment and artistic director Damian Cruden took theatre to the people by staging the play in the National Railway Museum. A huge success, it was one of the productions born in Yorkshire in the past two decades that has made the region such a theatrical powerhouse.

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The show went to London, where it won an Olivier and then to Canada, where it sold out to audiences who, night after night, were transported to a little corner of Yorkshire.

Hull Truck’s revival of The Railway Children which includes songs. (Ian Hodgson).

The perfect production to be revived, then? Well. Maybe, maybe not. See, the play is beautifully crafted, as is all Mike Kenny’s work, but the impact of the coup de theatre at the heart of the production shouldn’t be underestimated, that magic moment being the arrival into the action of an actual steam train.

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That’s why the perfect home for the play was the National Railway Museum, then Waterloo train station, then a similarly cavernous venue in Canada.

The iconic moment when a steam train is flagged down is a stunning stage spectacle. So, one assumes, it can’t work as well without that moment.

Someone who thinks it can is Mark Babych, the artistic director of Hull Truck Theatre and the man who has decided to revive the production as this year’s big Christmas show at the theatre.

What makes him so confident that he can make it work inside Hull Truck but without the help of an actual steam train for that moment?

“Everyone wants to know if we have an actual steam train. I can confirm that we create that moment with great theatricality,” says the enthusiastic director.

There’s a couple of reasons he is happy to be tongue in cheek about the steam train moment. The first reason is that we’re talking the morning after the press night when a hugely enthusiastic audience made their feelings about the production clear with hearty applause, but the other reason Babych is relaxed when discussing the big piece of the puzzle missing from his version of The Railway Children is that he knows this show – he’s the one who took it to London.

“Damian was unavailable, I think he might have been in Canada, so they asked me if I could direct it for London in Waterloo. At the time I was a freelance director and my response was to say ‘yes, please’.”

He knows the show, which is why he knew it could work for a Hull audience without the benefit of a real-life, full size actual steam train.

“I had a chat with Mike a couple of years ago about a new production – this was supposed to be with us last Christmas. I knew that the original production couldn’t work for Hull, but I asked Mike if he could see a way of adapting it for here.”

There was a key element that the original didn’t have that might make it work in Hull.

“Our big Christmas shows have always had songs, so I asked if he could look and see how it might work with songs. They had to be songs that would drive the narrative forward and Mike said he would talk to John Biddle, a composer we’ve worked with a lot in the past. Together they’ve come up with eight wonderful songs that really add to the storytelling in the piece.”

Here’s another reason Babych is buzzing with confidence.

“Last night Mike said that he couldn’t envisage how the piece could be improved, but he said that the addition of the songs have lifted the whole piece.”

As with all productions heading to the stage this Christmas there is a significant responsibility on the shoulders of the creative teams.

Last year the industry took a hammering. Christmas shows are always a huge part of any theatre’s annual box office, a huge part that simply disappeared last year. Babych is hopeful that this production will not just bring people in, but will speak to the collective experience of the last 18 months.

“There are several moments in the show that capture the sense of loss and absence, it’s about arrivals and departures and I think those layers are more resonant for what we’ve all gone through in the last couple of years.

“I think the music lifts the whole show into a really quite emotional place.”

It is also, for those who want a familiar story this festive season, faithful to the original story of a young set of siblings who are sent away from their home in London to live in Yorkshire. From the moors, they climb down into the Keighley Worth Valley to wave to the London train every day as they go through a summer of adventure.

“We’ve only been open four nights and I’m already getting messages from audience members telling me how much they love the show and thanking us for bringing it here.”

Sounds like a good signal that this production will continue to fly the flag for Yorkshire theatre.

An instant festive classic

Famously turned into a movie starring Bernard Cribbins, Lionel Jeffries and Jenny Agutter, The Railway Children film was originally released four days before Christmas in 1970 making it an instant festive classic for many.

In 2000 a BBC television version was broadcast with Jenny Agutter playing the role of mother and Michael Kitchen as the absent father.

A new film The Railway Children Return is due for release in cinemas next year.

Hull Truck, to January 2. Details and tickets on www.hulltruck.co.uk or the box office on 01482 323638.