Established 27 years ago, Image Musical Theatre are one of the longest-serving children’s theatre companies in the country, focussing on bringing classic tales to life with the aim of encouraging even the most reluctant readers to pick up a book. Their traditional participatory style of theatre offers the opportunity for audience members to join the cast onstage as part of the performance, truly engaging children and enhancing their experience.
In their latest offering, the company bring to life the escapades of The Railway Children in a condensed version of E. Nesbit’s well-revered classic. After a half-hour workshop to allow the audience to learn the songs that will feature as part of the storytelling and to choose the children who will work alongside the cast, a short interval follows before launching into the main performance. During this time the cast work with their additional performers backstage – soon they’re dressing up, familiarising themselves with the dialogue and having fun (even my slightly dubious 11-year old, who managed to snare the part of Phyllis!)
The four professional actors (Jemma Epstein, Christian Hurst, Kristian Turner and Stephanie Walton) are naturals with the young audience, displaying the usual exuberance and high energy of the archetypal children’s performer. They do an admirable job of including the children so they become an integral part of the performance; this hands-on involvement gives the whole piece a new dimension and sense of inclusion.
The daunting running time (110 minutes plus 20 minute interval) could be off-putting to the younger end of the recommended over-fives age group but the extra time is part of the audience participatory element and therefore becomes part of the fun. Rather than a faithful re-enactment of the entire story, the key elements of the narrative are kept (the family’s relocation to the countryside after unknown events with father; the encounter with the old man who provides food at the children’s request when mother is sick; Roberta saving the day and averting the train from disaster; the children rescuing Jim when he becomes trapped in the tunnel) and enhanced by Robert Hyman’s original score. The performers’ voices are used to great effect – harmonies mimic the sound of the steam train arriving – and all are accomplished singers.
The production attempts to provide something for every audience member: the sing-along formula appeals to the youngest, a chance to be involved is for those slightly older and more confident, and it’s all a return to childhood for the adults. Harking back to a bygone era with their traditional approach, Image Musical Theatre evoke memories of performances in school halls, particularly recreating the magic of set transformations as woodland becomes sitting room by spinning scenery on casters as the production returns to stories from the past.
Although in today’s high-tech world, young audiences may seem slightly too sophisticated for such a traditional approach, there is something nostalgic and comforting about this style of retelling the prominent works of literature to future generations. As Image Musical Theatre return in the Autumn with Beauty and the Beast their longevity appears to be indicative of their success and winning formula.