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The Steam Whistle Theatre Company

Authored by Vivian French
Published by Walker Books

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The Steam Whistle Theatre Company is masterclass in storytelling from Vivian French. When Pa Pringle decides that the theatrical world in the North of England needs his theatre company, he up sticks from London, taking his two children, Charlie and Rosie, and other members of his family performance troupe with him. As they travel north on the steam train, we learn separately of the desperate plight of Arabella Poskett, the lady of Uncaster Hall, whose husband has died leaving her and their two fairly unpleasant children, Affogato and Hypatia (frankly, the most brilliantly named characters I’ve ever come across), in dire financial straights. Will Pa find a theatre which will put on his one-hour-abridged, musical version of King Lear? Will Arabella find a way to solve her money problems without selling out to Mr Olio Sleevery? Can Charlie and Rosie find any way at all to help? Only the complex interplay of these – and quite a few subplots and sub-sub plots too – will give a final answer!

The shades of England’s two most celebrated writers, Shakespeare and Dickens, stand beaming in the wings of this delightful nineteenth-century-based yarn. While’ onstage’ the valiant efforts of the young heroes of “The Steam Whistle Theatre Company” play out their derring-do that echoes some of Shakespeare’s best-known plays (notably King Lear but also Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the backstage skullduggery of Baby Bubbles and his calculating mother, the comedy of Mrs Moore’s mercenary ways, and the charm of the housemaid-heroine, Edie Boiler, who puts the common good at the centre of everything she does, all bring to mind some of Dickens’ greatest characters.

It is so refreshing to read a children’s novel published today, which simply puts great storytelling centre-stage. There is a continued need for books such as this: a compulsive plot that weaves together the shenanigans of a multitude of characters. The story of The Steam Whistle Theatre Company keeps the reader breathlessly turning the pages, at one moment chuckling at a scene involving a macabre impromptu roast-chicken dinner and then outraged at one particular character’s jealous violence. One can almost sense Dickens rubbing his hands in glee at the storytelling bravado here, even up to the final deus ex machina climax: an age-old theatrical flourish which steers its way satisfyingly between delight and (almost) complete disbelief!

By the time the last pages are reached, the feeling of not wanting to leave behind these adorable characters leads one to the conclusion that a perfect read (or was it a night at the theatre…?) was had. Brava, Vivian French! Encore!