Currently playing in a theatre constructed over the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo station is the York Theatre Royal production of The Railway Children, produced by Jenny King and Matthew Gale for the Touring Consortium in association with the National Railway Museum. It fell to Northampton-based Unusual Rigging to create, in that cavernous space, a 45m long theatre which straddled tracks and platforms and would house 1000 people and a genuine 66 tonne steam train.
Unusual Rigging’s Simon Stone said: “We are used to dealing with the unusual but this was a real turn around – we took the theatre to the train instead of the other way around!”
The primary concern was the station’s glass roof which, not designed to take heavy loads, needed to support 450m of truss weighing 5 tonnes, with an additional 2.5 tonnes of lighting equipment and one tonne of sound equipment. Unusual Rigging’s Design Engineer, Jeremy Featherstone, worked in close conjunction with railway engineers to design a solution to the limited weight loading capabilities of the roof, and still meet BRB (owners of the property) regulations.
Featherstone spent a full day on site with a theodolite, establishing and marking out optimum positions for chain hoists and truss legs from which designs and drawings were produced. The main train tunnel and wing spaces were constructed using SuperLifts and chain hoists, due to the lack of hanging points for motors in those locations.
Forty chain hoists were used to raise the theatre’s main roof structure to a height of nine metres at the centre, sloping to five metres at the sides. At this point 12 truss legs were installed, relieving some of the load from the roof, before the chain hoists were removed and the lighting and sound equipment installed.
“When in position the main roof structure kisses the steel work of the station roof and its glass sides, so it’s a very tight squeeze,” explains Stone. “On the inner side of the track we could hang motors off the roof beams, but on the all-glass outer side we needed to come up with something clever. We devised a method whereby we drilled holes through the seals around the outer edge of the glass roof panels and, using 10mm steel rope, connected the main roof and lighting truss to a purpose-built steel structure outside the station building.”
The whole structure was then covered with 1250sqm of drapes, supplied by Acre Jean, in a bespoke material that weighed 33% less than standard drapes. These formed the ceiling, sides, doors and train tunnel to complete the enclosed theatre space.
It took a team of six Unusual riggers three weeks to complete the structure in a master stroke of interdepartmental coordination. “The staff at Waterloo are not used to theatre logistics and we had to ensure that everything conformed to railway regulations in addition to the standard theatre requirements,” says Stone. “This was very time-consuming and we didn’t get clearance to start hanging until the day we were scheduled to start.”
Unusual Rigging also supplied the plant for the load-in for all production departments: two cherry pickers, three 2-ton forklift trucks and two Bradshaw tractor units and trailers carried every piece of the installation a distance of over ¼ mile from the loading dock to the platforms.
The Railway Children Live at Waterloo supports The Railway Children Charity, which works for runaway and abandoned children who live in or around the world’s railway stations.