ON THE RIGHT TRACK
THE RAILWAY CHILDREN at Waterloo Station is a triumph. Spectacular, well-acted, ingenious, amusing, moving – a faithful adaptation, lovingly directed. Not surprising, because the adaptor is Mike Kenny, one of our finest writers of children’s plays, and the director is Damian Cruden, artistic director of The Theatre Royal, York, and a passionate advocate of theatre for young people. What is surprising is the scale of the production. It is site-specific ‘event theatre’, with the large number of spectators sitting on the old Eurostar platforms, witnessing the action taking place on the track, including the exciting entrance of a real steam train. The jolly journey from the entrance towards the auditorium takes in shops and cafés, plus popcorn stalls. You could be at a theme park. But there is nothing tacky about it, and the whole experience shouts ‘quality’ and ‘integrity’.
It shows how family theatre (the appeal of this show is far wider than ‘children’s theatre’) is now taken very seriously as a commercial proposition. An appeal to children and young people is seen as a plus, which, except at Christmastime, hasn’t always been the case. But now we see the huge success of WARHORSE in the West End, alongside the continuing popularity of THE LION KING and, now on tour, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. Taking over from OLIVER! at Drury Lane will be SHREK, and Dahl’s MATILDA will be the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s Christmas attraction. THE WIZARD OF OZ is coming to the Palladium, while its prequel, WICKED, breaks records at the Apollo Victoria.
All positive stuff. Great that children are being catered for. But, before we get too excited, a thought ….. these big-budget blockbusters mustn’t discourage or be allowed to squeeze out the specialist children’s theatre companies working all over the UK on a smaller scale in theatres, arts centres and schools. Their work is vital, because it reaches children who would never get the chance to see one of the ‘big’ shows, either because the tickets are too expensive or because they live miles from London, in a place where there is no large touring theatre. In these dark days of funding cuts, the Arts Councils and local authorities must aim to preserve these often undervalued companies.
And, hopefully, theatre managers will not cut back on touring work for children from both the commercial and the subsidised sector. It would be easy to do so, bearing in mind that the low ticket price will potentially generate less income for the theatre than an adult show. But it would also be short sighted not to be developing future audiences by targeting families and school parties. Not every child in every family or school can enjoy the splendours of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, but there is much excellent work out there that they can enjoy, as long as the dedicated companies providing it are nurtured and supported, and not savaged by the cuts.
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