Fred Pringle’s London theatre company has fallen on hard times, so with a new name, a new mode of transport (steam train) and renewed hope, they head north in search of a fresh audience for their unique take on Shakespeare’s plays – but things don’t quite go to plan.
The latest children’s book from Edinburgh-based author Vivian French provides a light and funny introduction to Shakespeare (especially King Lear) and feels theatrical in its own right, with an ensemble of larger-than-life characters and plenty to boo and cheer about.
When the troupe find themselves unexpected lodgers at Uncaster Hall, a stately home that seems doomed to fall into the hands of the bailiffs, they befriend its owner Arabella and her plucky and hard-working housemaid Edie. The future looks bleak for them all, but young Edie and her actor friends Rosie and Charlie refuse to give up, and it is their determination that gives the story its heart.
The loveable characters are countered by a gallery of villains, including Baby Bubbles – a greedy teenage magician whose mother still treats him as an infant – his would-be apprentice, Jago, who has a fondness for vandalism and spying, and slippery landlord Olio Sleevery.
There are some lovely details, from the steam train journey towards York, to the contrasting Victorian settings of the Golden Lion tavern and the ‘respectable’ Supper Rooms, as well as delightful character names such as Miss Twillfit, the milliner and Mr Tramway, the Post Master.
The Steam Whistle Theatre Company is a story that you can’t help imagining as a costume drama, with the finest classical actors rushing to play its rewarding roles. The upbeat Pa (Fred) Pringle was my favourite – booming out lines from the bard at every opportunity – Simon Callow would be perfect for it!
The Steam Whistle Theatre Company, by Vivian French, Walker Books