In an airy rehearsal room on Gray’s Inn Road, four children are lost in dark woods. Undeterred, they build a makeshift tent, eat some chocolate discovered at the bottom of a sack, and settle in for the night, though when no one else can hear, the eldest, Julian, admits in private be a little scared. A big, shaggy-looking puppet dog lies down next to them, but with one eye open, of course: he’s also keeping watch. It can only be the evergreen The Famous Five – Enid Blyton books featuring four children (and their dog) having incredible adventures in the countryside during a summer vacation that seems to go on forever.
The Famous Five: A New Musical, a co-production between Theatr Clwyd and Chichester Festival Theatre, opens this week in Clwyd. The story, written by Elinor Cook, is original but draws so heavily from Blyton’s books – especially the first, Five On A Treasure Island – that you might find it hard to tell the difference at times. There are picnics, albeit featuring humous and tarama alongside sponge cake and ham, a kidnapping plot, a ransom, a spooky moment in the abandoned castle on Kirrin Island, and especially those brave and resilient children in a world in which they cannot always rely on adults.
“We were very keen to capture the freedom of the Famous Five,” says Cook. “I wanted our story to build on all of those exciting touchpoints that are still so recognizable. The books have a romance that really lingers.
That’s right – almost every kid who reads The Famous Five also wishes they could go out for the day on their bikes, find a smuggler’s passage or hidden treasure, solve a mystery or two, and get home in time for tea. Nonetheless, this musical adaptation comes at an interesting time in our relationship with arguably the most popular songwriter in the world. No one was ever under any illusions that Enid Blyton was a particularly good prose writer, even in the 1950s. and live in houses with cooks and nannies; the villains are usually either working-class or foreign; the female characters (with the heroic exception of the tomboy George) are products of their time – made her a favorite target for the frothier participants in today’s culture wars.
Yet her ability to speak from a child’s point of view while treating her experiences with the same seriousness as an adult ensures that she continues to be provocative and stratospherically popular, still selling half a million books. copies each year in the UK only. “There are aspects of the stories that are enjoyed by people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and countries,” says director Tamara Harvey, outgoing artistic director of Theatr Clwyd (she was recently appointed co-artistic director of the RSC) . “We were clear that if we were careful and responsible in the way we said it, it would be a worthwhile undertaking.”