I liked The Railway Children - currently getting its North American debut in Toronto - well enough but must admit I was not particularly thrilled by the arrival of an 86-ton vintage steam locomotive on the stage at the end of the first act.
In fact, though the genuine train is the main selling point for the show, I think I would have preferred the production without it. This realistic - actually, just plain real - prop broke the spell created by director Damian Cruden's otherwise inventive and imaginative staging.
A reader called SS Lake Champlain commented on my review asking: "Whatever happened to the 'magic' of the theatre?! Whatever happened to people's imaginations?!" I must thank him or her for this, because it jogged my memory of a book by American critic Clayton Hamilton written about 100 years ago that contains a passage very relevant to this particular debate.
Hamilton's The Theory of Theatre contains an chapter about exactly what we mean when we say we want theatre to "hold, as 't were, the mirror up to nature" (in Hamlet's words). He says we actually want art to hold up a magic mirror that reveals both insides and out. As you will discover if you read this online snippet, the, er, train of thought The Railway Children set me off on has been around for an awfully long time.
"There is no virtue in reflection unless there be some magic in the mirror. Certain enterprising modern managers permit their press agents to pat them on the back because they have set, say, a locomotive on the stage; but why should we pay to see a locomotive in the theatre when we may see a dozen locomotives in Grand Central Station without paying anything? Why, indeed! - unless the dramatist contrives to reveal an imaginable human mystery throbbing in the palpitant heart - no, not of the locomotive, but of the locomotive-engineer. That is something that we could not see at all in Grand Central Station, unless we were endowed with eyes as penetrant as those of the dramatist himself."
So, what do you think about the train in The Railway Children?