Bernard Cribbins, who originated the role of Mr Perks in the 1970 film The Railway Children, boarded an original steam train from the film today to hand over his station porter hat to Marshall Lancaster, who takes on the role in a site-specific family stage adaptation opening in July.
The event took place at the now redundant Eurostar terminal at Waterloo Station, which from 4 July will be transformed into a unique theatre space. York Theatre Royal’s adaptation of E. Nesbit’s novel tells the story of three children whose lives are changed dramatically when their father is mysteriously taken away.
Set on Platform 24, the audience will sit under the vast glass arches, either side of the track where the 66-tonne Stirling Single locomotive will pull in the gentleman’s saloon carriage. The experience will begin in the Eurostar Terminal itself, which will be transformed from its current deserted state of dusty Chanel perfume counters and Currency Exchange booths, to a new venue with cafes, bars, exhibitions and workshop areas.
With a month to go until previews begin, the company are hard at work to create a unique theatre experience, as Lancaster explained to Official London Theatre in the grandeur of the gentleman’s saloon carriage: “The audience sit on high platforms as if they’re waiting for trains. They get the whole Victorian experience. They get their tickets stamped when they come in, there’s luggage everywhere. They should expect a high-paced, full Victorian experience. The way they’re building the set, they’ve got real trains coming in, it’s really quite something.”
With the audience anticipating the steam train’s arrival, it would be easy for the cast to worry about being upstaged by such a grand prop, but Lancaster assured Official London Theatre he simply found it exciting: “We are always upstaged by the steam trains, so we don’t worry about it! It is amazing; people just look forward to it arriving. There’s a steam effect and sound. Obviously it can’t be blazing or we’d all be on fire in the theatre. To think that the girl who plays Bobby – Sarah Quintrell – she’s got to stand in front of it and wave a petticoat as it stops! Very exciting.”
Today marked the first official meeting between the two Mr Perks. Lancaster explained he had attempted an introduction previously: “I’d met him [Cribbins] at an awards do once and I went over to tell him I played Mr Perks and I think he thought I was a bit bonkers! It’s nice to officially get the hat off him.”
Cribbins, still immensely proud of the original film, explained why over 30 years later people still see the appeal: “It matters because it’s about family loyalty and all that, and a lot of nice people as well. There’s not much nastiness in it. And it’s also got trains! There’s a huge fan base for it still, a great nostalgia for it. I think a lot of people will come to see this just to see a live train come in.”
Asked whether he would be attending the show, he said “I’m coming along to see this and looking forward to it enormously. Just to see it as an actor, as an ex-stage manager, to see the way it works, apart from seeing the performances as well.”
The Railway Children opens on 12 July, with previews from 4 July, and runs until 4 September.
The production is supporting the Railway Children Charity which aims to help homeless children from around the world, with £1 per ticket donated.