The Steam Whistle Theatre Company – Vivian French

Adventure with a undercurrent of challenging historical experience.

The Steam Whistle Theatre Company has shades of hope and dark comedy as the grinding poverty and shadow of the workhouse looms behind the fun and frolic of the children and the madcap machinations of their parents to make their ventures work and to survive. The desperate need for money is palpable throughout amongst all layers of society.

It’s also got a fun cover with illustrator Hannah Peck’s illustrations giving a vintage feel with a modern twist to it showing the steam engine framed by child characters Charlie, Rosie, Edie and ‘Baby’.

Rosie and Charlie have grown up part of their family theatre troop, but making money in London is becoming slim pickings with rising costs and lowering interest especially with Pa’s obsession with The Bard.

The plan is to take the act to the North on the railways, but they can only get as far as the village of Uncaster.

Meanwhile at Uncaster Hall Lady Arabella Poskett is in dire straits after her husband has bankrupted them and died leaving her two ungrateful children and a huge hall that a greedy local businessman has his eye on but can they stay afloat only one remaining servant Edie Boiler a former workhouse girl with streetwise spirit in spades.

The two families will collide as the Players are in need of lodgings, and the Poskett’s in need of money but in the mix are a mysteriously old ‘Baby’ and his sticky fingered mother running away from their past.

The plot is interesting as we have this playful romp where the group of players are seeking their fortune, and the Posketts have surreal comedic elements like Edies mixed up words (hippobottomuses may enter my vocabulary!! ) and chickens squashed by wardrobes juxtaposed against unimaginable heartbreak of impoverished conditions and life expectancy of the Victorian era and Industrial Revolution.

It was pleasant just to meander through some realistic experiences with the characters instead of dashing from plot to plot point, we see so much in these pauses, washing and peeling vegetables together, collecting the props, sitting around singing and reciting. We get a glimpse of their humanity as much as the slowly simmering plot and this is as much of the experience of the book as following the story.

The blending of the worlds; upstairs and downstairs; the Lady and the Lodgers; The Players and the Hustler tells us much about the dichotomies that were in place and how it takes very little to blur them.

“My gran told me what was right and what was wrong afore I ended up in the workhouse, and I won’t never forget what she said.”

Vivian French is a very established and respected author and her experience shines here. Her world building and characterisation are impeccable even down to the tiniest details of syntax and vocabulary choices that give us insights into the characters’ hearts and minds right from the opening chapters. It was a joy to read such beautifully rounded and artfully created characters.

I admit my heart was lost to little Edie, the workhouse waif with street smarts, the only member of staff who stays behind because she believed she only gets ‘Board & Lodging and Be Grateful’ as a workhouse release. The way she uses the equivalent of a century of life experience at what must be 12 years old is both entertaining and humbling. You’re proud of her as she negotiates bartering and your heart breaks for her as snippets of her hard but loved upbringing accidentally slip from her mouth.

As a former History teacher this would be an excellent read to understand some context, to get a grasp within an accessible and gentle way of how precarious life was in this time without the safety net of the welfare state. References are made to urbanisation and living in Victorian cities, the Transport Revolution and social conditions including those in or almost in the workhouse. There is much opportunity for cross curricular links with Shakespeare, geography, use of ink pens for writing and pre-electric and pre computerised printing techniques in particular.

This would be an excellent contextual book to add to Ks2 and Ks3 libraries, classrooms and home educator collections when studying the Victorians and later the Industrial Revolution.

Overall I was enchanted by this book, it is a piece of craftsmanship in its accessible historical knowledge and big concepts tied up with a neat story and rounded characters we can really root for.

It’s a quiet launch in comparison to some but it’s SUCH a good book and has much to say about what happens when society fails to care for the vulnerable and when we do look after each other. This one is a real keeper.

The Steam Whistle Theatre Company by Vivian French is published by Walker Books and available from all good bookstores and online from 7th February

I received this book for free from Walker Books (thank you) with no obligation or payment- this has not affected my opinion.

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