FamilyFestive 17/18North WestReview

The Secret Seven  – Storyhouse, Chester

Writer: Enid Blyton

Adaptor: Glen Maxwell

Director: Alex Clifton

Reviewer: Mel Duncan

‘Lashings of ginger beer!’

The Secret Seven are beloved, and almost the stuff of English folklore.  Generation after generation of children have grown up living vicariously within Enid Blyton’s beautifully crafted pages, and inside the heads of arguably ever adult in the English speaking world adventures have been planned, mysteries solved and villages saved.  It is also Storyhouse’s first Christmas offering, the venue still being in its first year of operation. This play has a lot to live up to.

The Christmas atmosphere is set before entry, with a merry bunch of carollers full of festive cheer and accompanied by an accordion – they interact beautifully with the audience.  The community chorus are a well-used facet of performances by companies such as Theatr Clwyd and Theatre in the Quarter- it is so positive to see the creative team at Storyhouse taking up this thread and engaging with skilled local performers, while adding further colour and vibrancy to a professional production.

James Perkin’s set build is a beautiful thing- plenty of interesting lines and differently textured layers to excite and engage inquisitive minds whilst entering the space and settling into seats. It cleverly adapts to create many different scenes within Cherrydale, and provides a real focal point.

The story is a slightly complex one including an angel flying above the village, fires in the house on the hill, a ‘bad sort’ with a slightly adult score to settle.  Opening with the darker part of the tale sets a strange note for the piece, and it takes an awful lot to get the show going as a result.  That said, Evangeline Hartley sings a  beautifully melancholy refrain, and her perfectly poised performance rescues the other elements somewhat.

The Secret Seven themselves are an on the whole very well matched bunch- the camaraderie between them all is evident, notably between George and Jack (Anton Cross and George Caple) and brother and sister pairing Peter and Janet (Harry Jardine and Harriet Slater).  Just the right amount of teasing, with an overarching friendship and bond, a feeling anyone growing up in a close-knit community will immediately recognise and identify with.  The boisterous bunch use the set energetically and scamper off over walls and up telegraph poles.   The narrative moments involving them are upbeat, vibrant and perfectly fitting for a Family show.  There is an old world charm to their performance but the addition of tiny elements such as triumphant two rapper Binkie (Tilly-Mae Millbrook)) make the world a little more accessible to a younger, more modern audience. The beautiful way in which the Seven bring the audience into their childlike world with tiny moments of interaction are magical.

The ‘bad sorts’ Joco (Nick Figgis) and Nimms (Joel Sams) are a little too dark for the rest of the show, and their plotline and motivation requires a lot of explanation to smaller audience members.  There is also no real repentance from Joco- one wonders what Enid Blyton would make of this.

The incidental music is engaging and brilliantly controlled by MD Barbara Hockaday.  The community chorus provide light relief and set the tone between scenes singing carols. Carol arrangements are sometimes a little too complex – with carols, clarity and simplicity are key. Alas the contrapuntal fugal embellishments at times make for an uncomfortable moment or two.

Harry Jardine does an amazing job as Peter throughout, keeping things going and connecting the dots for audience members.  Matthew Hutchinson’s puppet Scamper is simply delightful, and it’s model and real-life counterpart enters the stage to thunderous applause from both audience and cast at curtain call.  Lighting is a letdown- sometimes characters are barely visible, and it appears as a mistake rather than creative choice.

The cast are working hard throughout the two-hour run time – The Secret Seven looks beautiful, has wonderful costume, but the heart is missing.  Theatre in its very essence is about imparting a story to another, in an engaging and memorable way, to bring the emotional connection between character and audience to the fore, and despite having so much potential,  this doesn’t  hit the mark.

Runs until January 14, 2018 | Image: Contributed

 

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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