In an airy rehearsal room on the Gray's Inn Road four children are lost in a dark wood. Undeterred they make a makeshift tent, eat a bit of chocolate discovered at the bottom of a bag, and settle down for the night, although when no one else can hear, the eldest, Julian, privately admits to be being a little bit scared. A big shaggy-looking puppet dog lies down next to them, although with one eye open, of course: he is also keeping guard. It can only be The Famous Five – Enid Blyton's evergreen books featuring four children (and their dog) having amazing adventures in the countryside during summer holidays that seem to go on forever.
The Famous Five: A New Musical, a co-production between Theatr Clwyd and Chichester Festival Theatre, opens this week at Clwyd. The story, written by Elinor Cook, is original but draws so strongly on Blyton's books – particularly the first, Five On A Treasure Island – you might at times be hard pressed to tell the difference. There are picnics, albeit featuring humous and taramasalata alongside sponge cake and ham, a kidnap plot, a ransom, a scary moment in the derelict castle on Kirrin Island, and most importantly these children being brave and resilient in a world in which they cannot always rely on adults.
“We were very keen on capturing the freedom of The Famous Five,” says Cook. “I wanted our story to draw on all those exciting touchpoints that are still so recognisable. The books have a romance that really lingers.”
This is true – nearly every child that reads The Famous Five wishes they too could head off for the day on their bicycles, find a smuggler's passage or some hidden treasure, solve a mystery or two, and return home in time for tea. All the same, this musical adaptation arrives at an interesting moment in our relationship to arguably the world's most popular author. No one was ever under any illusions that Enid Blyton was a particularly good prose writer, even in the 1950s. Still, her unpalatable out-of-date attitudes towards class, race and gender – her main protagonists are white and live in houses with cooks and nannies; the villains are usually either working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 tomboy George) are products of their time – have made her a favourite target for the more foamy-mouthed participators in today's culture wars.
Yet her ability to speak to a child's point of view while treating their experiences with the same seriousness as you might an adult's ensures she continues to be defiantly, stratospherically popular, still selling half a million copies each year in the UK alone. “There are aspects to the stories that are beloved by people from many different backgrounds and ethnicities and countries,” says director Tamara Harvey, outgoing artistic director of Theatr Clwyd (she's recently been appointed co-artistic director of the RSC). “We were clear that if we were careful and responsible in the way we told ours then it would be a valid endeavour.”
“Blyton's reputation was definitely a huge consideration for all of us,” adds Cook. “But, while I think it's absolutely right to be asking those questions about class and race that we feel deeply uncomfortable about now, to dismiss her entirely off the back of that would be to miss a lot of the aspects of her books that are actually very inclusive.”
Indeed, what has surprised Cook during the writing of the show is Blyton's modernity. “We were very interested in the fact that, if you look at George's family, it's clear in the books they are financially struggling. You wonder if Julian's parents are even paying them a stipend for them to stay there. I also think Blyton writes about only children very well. She really gets them as outsiders. So much of George's anger clearly comes from the way her father neglects her. Blyton had a greater understanding of family dynamics than she is often given credit for.”
Were the team tempted to make George non-binary or trans? After all, she refuses to wear dresses or answer to the name of Georgina. “We're not going one way or the other,” says Maria Goodman who plays George. “George is a character who, depending on your life experience, can read very differently. The idea that she is rejecting these feminine stereotypes can be interpreted as her being a tomboy, or if you are non-binary, you could read that idea into it as well. The point is the characters are relatable to everybody.”
To that end Cook was keen to flesh out aspects of all four children's psychology, albeit from starting points in the original books. So Anne, the much-belittled little sister who is usually the one clearing away the picnic things, is still mousy and naive but gets to stand up for herself a bit more. George is still filthy-tempered and determined but at times also lost and uncertain. Dick is still the silly one but irked by the way his older brother treats him. Julian, meanwhile, an insufferable know-it-all, is occasionally beset with insecurity.
We also get to see a bit more of the long-suffering Aunt Fanny. Yet was she also tempted to change the character names? “Funnily enough, no! Modernise names such as Dick and Aunt Fanny and they lose something. We are fully prepared for sniggers in the audience, but hopefully we've treated the characters with enough detail and compassion that they can quickly forget how hilarious their names are and become more interested in their stories.”
Perhaps most central to the production, though, is the idea of childhood itself, or certainly the idealised image of it as a never-ending sun-soaked summer that we carry with us long into adulthood, whether we grew up in a tower block or in the countryside. That such ideas are so often shaped by the books we read when young is reflected in the way the team have chosen to set their show not in a specified past or present but in an indeterminate timeless moment. “The books exist in their own world; they have this odd separation from normal time and place,” says Goodman, who is the only actor among the four playing the children who didn't read the books when she was young. “When I did read them ahead of my audition it didn't even occur to me to make comparisons between then and now.”
“Let's face it, the England of Enid Blyton probably never even existed,” says the composer Theo Jamieson. His intention with the score has been to evoke this half-real, half-imagined sense of place by combining immersive 3D sound design and programmed electronic drums “that you might expect to hear in Bon Iver or Kanye West” alongside acoustic guitars and flutes.
The result, he hopes, is a soundscape that captures both the bucolic elements of the countryside with something more modern and exciting, or what he calls a “music festival” vibe. “I wanted to create that feeling of rushing through massive landscapes, of being in a child's body and crashing through long grass, but also with a sensibility that speaks to people now,” he says. “There's some Lizzo influences in the music, and the Divine Comedy. I think of it as a modern brain goes out into the country.”
So what final word of encouragement would the team give to any child who believes that Blyton's stories about a mythical privileged 1940s childhood aren't for them? “That the world they inhabit is so magical,” says Cook. “There is story after story but the children keep coming back to Kirrin and they never get any older. They remain forever children. Who wouldn't want to be transported back to that?”
The Famous Five: A New Musical is at Theatr Clwyd from Friday; theatrclwyd.com