Theatr Clwyd, Mold – until 15 October 2022, then at Chichester Festival Theatre from 21 October to 12 November 2022
Guest reviewer: Julie Noller
Enid Blyton wrote The Famous Five series of books about her mystery solving family of young teens in a post war Britain, that’s over 60 years ago. They were my introduction to crime novels from an early age, a joy of reading that spans over 40 years. Blyton is an institution as British as afternoon tea; it would take an extremely brave team to not only bring her work to the stage but to totally refresh it with a modern twist.
A collaboration between Chichester Festival Theatre and Theatr Clwyd brings a fresh vibe that sees writer Elinor Cook and director Tamara Harvey concentrate on family relationships and climate crisis as opposed to spies.
On entering the theatre to make our way to our seats I was delighted to see the stage used as a warm up set with puppet hares, light up model tents, cottage and a derelict castle. I’ve got to say I was in awe of the musicians, Elisa Boyd, Claire Shaw and Benedict Wood; the ease and warmth in which they play draw you into the stage as a front cover of a book can call to you.
The simple stage set up is perfect, allowing your imagination to flow, adding details to the story unfolding before your eyes. Every now and then the lighting will shift and allow you to see the band at work behind the scenes, a gentle nod to how a film changes pace or altering storylines and plot twists develop.
What would a mystery be without trap doors and tunnels, and they are great to see on stage. Equally, what would a mystery be without a villain? This one appears in a cloak, which feels like watching a Scooby Doo cartoon, then in the final scenes appears in a James Bond-esque white suit. I felt this was a gentle touch of brilliance by the design team led by Lucy Osborne.
You do wonder how the combination of Enid Blyton and musical is actually going to work but it really does. At just over two hours it really packs in the songs which at times leave you breathless. Each character has their time in the limelight. Quite often with musicals, certain characters shy away from singing – after all we are not all made to raise the roof – but each and every song works really well, adding dimensions and pushing the story along with lines being able to be plucked out by the audience (“lashings of ginger beer” being one that really struck me).
With a modern retake comes a modern feel and it works extremely well to highlight how well each character is written, there is a depth to each that I would never have considered. Without sounding too negative, they weren’t the characters I remember, but challenging your preconceptions isn’t a bad thing. This musical takes each individual and assesses how they interact with each other, how a family bond can work in terms of friendship.
Ailsa Dallin who receives the biggest cheer or perhaps her character Timmy the dog does. Her puppeteering is fantastic, she appears to know Timmy inside out and I believed I was looking at a dog with his quirky sniffing and wagging tail. Maria Goodman delivers a great performance of wayward teen George, aka Georgina, a tomboy at heart rebelling against her attention neglectful Father Quentin (David Ricardo-Pearce). Lara Denning brings us the maternal softer side of family life as Fanny with her joy of cooking and secret book writing, twisting at the end with a book published quite possibly saving the family home, that’s girl power.
Our three siblings chucked into poor Georges life whilst seeking adventure (who doesn’t love adventure?) Jullian (Dewi Wykes) Dick (Louis Suc) and Anne (Isabelle Methven) each ticks certain personality criteria. Jullian who wasn’t quite as strong and forthright as my memory recalls but is a 14 year old growing up with the weight of his family resting on his shoulders for he is the eldest pushed to act accordingly and yet quite possibly the most vulnerable. Dick quite easily the most fun sibling always hungry always playing jokes and getting into scrapes; dare I say middle child syndrome? Anne I remember being quiet but intelligent the one to suggest but on stage she struggled to be heard. Being the youngest and a girl, yes times have changed I struggled to move beyond that and I believe this production did too for a time having her arguing with her brothers instead of being the peacekeeper. I’m glad to see Anne brought back into the fold with her illustrating her Aunt Fannys book. There are only 2 other characters but they are quite important to the plot. Sam Harrison is Bobby a sort of one size fits all character, he is funny, camp and quirky and quite possibly the character to cross all the decades. He is helpful, imformative and yet kidnapper all in one. Kibong Tanji is Roweena a dastardly villian who I very almostly hissed at – ok I booed inside. She has the most amazing voice reaching those high pitches easily.
All in all The Famous Five is a great introduction to the genre of mystery drama. It even answers the age old question of why are they The Famous Five to find out you’ll have to go see it.
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