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The Famous Five at Chichester Festival Theatre – review

The venue wraps up its anniversary season with a new musical

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The cast of The Famous Five
© The Other Richard

There's not an iPhone or an Xbox in sight as some of Enid Blyton's most beloved characters are brought to a semi-contemporised life in this new – and entirely British – musical. It lands on the Chichester stage in a co-production with Theatr Clwyd to close the 60th Anniversary season. It is also a rare and welcome opportunity to include younger audiences in Chichester's season.

Rather than directly adapting any of Blyton's original books, writer Elinor Cook has created her own adventure – but with the familiar Blyton elements to make it all feel like a thoroughly wholesome affair. There are steam trains, deserted islands, secret passages, lashings of sandwiches and lots of thigh slapping ‘we're all in this together' moments. But in an attempt to drag the piece into the 21st century we also have climate crisis, the threat of being "vaporised" with TNT and themes of gender identity. It makes for a confused adventure that is only occasionally successful in grabbing attention.

Julian, Dick and Anne are holidaying on the coast in Kerrin with their climate scientist Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny. Cousin Georgina – who only wants to be called George – reluctantly welcomes them into her world and onto her beach. When they are all kidnapped by a disenfranchised former assistant to Uncle Quentin, there is a race to save the day and then create a formula to save the planet from destruction by using algae. There's psycho-drama along the way with George not feeling loved by her father, Anne not feeling heard or taken seriously and Julian feeling the pressure of being the eldest and having the responsibilities of looking after his siblings. It's all traumatic stuff!

Tamara Harvey directs with pace and works her small company hard to try and tell a good yarn. The popsy and relentlessly upbeat score by Theo Jamieson is moderately successful but never entirely works to propel the adventure forward. Each of the children (played by adults) have moments to shine in their individual numbers, but it is sadly quite difficult to distinguish what is being sung amongst a sound mix that has Katherine Rockhill's onstage band overpowering them a lot of the time.

Lucy Osborne has designed a fairly static set of pastel shaded driftwood to evoke the beachside setting. Two large trees dominate the stage made from rusted steel – perhaps a nod to the environmental messaging – with some subtle projection work adding further texture. It all lacks any sense of journey for the adventures however and makes it difficult for the incredibly hard working company to convey movement of location as they determinedly fight adversity and mature in character.

Two dungaree'd puppeteers work their socks off, running around the stage with patchwork seals, sack cloth rabbits and Timmy the dog. A reliance on waving things on sticks becomes tedious after a while and the puppets are more functional than emotive – despite being the fifth member of the famous quintet, Timmy is rather stiff and lacks the expressiveness of some of the dog puppets in shows like the recent 101 Dalmatians at Regents Park.

Maria Goodman (George), Louis Suc (Dick), Dewi Wykes (Julian) and Isabelle Methven (Anne) all give high energy performances. Methven is particularly likeable and sweet voiced as the voice of young girl-power. Kibong Tanji isn't nearly villainous enough as Rowena and Sam Harrison's absurdly camp array of hat-wearing supporting roles never quite reaches the comedic aspirations he aims for.

There is a clear affection for Blyton that has driven this new musical but in its desire to stay obstinately bouncy and positive it loses its dramatic edge. The constant shouting in excitement becomes exhausting and you long for it to reveal – just slightly - a darker underbelly.