Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Secret Hen House Theatre by Helen Peters

You know that feeling when you read a brilliant book and you just want to rush out and share it!  A book friend of mine read The Secret Hen House Theatre and ever since (this was months and months ago) every time she sees me she mentions this book with such enthusiasm.

Why did it take me so long to read this book?  Well unlike many reviews that I have read I don't really like the cover and I think it is a poor reflection of the tone and even genre of this book.

My second issue with this book now seems quite odd.  When I began to read this book many months ago I had the idea that it was American.  Why does this matter?  Well it doesn't matter but it meant I approached the story with a particular mind set and for some reason I just couldn't relate to this family of four children and their dad living on a run down farm.  This week I sat down to try once again to read The Secret Hen House Theatre and I had a light bulb moment - this book is from England.  This helped the whole setting to make sense.  I read one reviewer who said this book reminded her of Noel Stretfeild and I can see why.  I also reminds me of I Capture the castle by Dodie Smith.

Six years earlier Hannah's mum has died.  Rebecca was a keen thespian and has a wonderful book collection about stage craft and set design and theatre management. Hannah loves to write plays and she has the most fabulous friend called Lottie who supports her every step of the way. Lotte is brilliant at making costumes and graphic arts and is unfailingly positive.

Hannah tries to explain her feelings about acting and the theatre :
"How could she describe the joy of it?  The fun of rehearsals.  The magic of creating a world from wood and words and fabric and sound effects.  The buzz backstage, the butterflies in your stomach, the dazzle of the lights-"

Alongside her passion for the theatre Hannah also longs for her father's approval.  In his grief he seems to have distanced himself from the children and even though he is passionate about his farm animals the farm itself is slowly falling apart.

Lottie tells Hannah about the Linford Arts Festival.  There is a youth drama competition and the prize is 500 pounds.  Hannah begins to imagine all sorts of wonderful possibilities but first she needs a performance space.  Her dad refuses to let Hannah use the loft in the barn but then she stumbles on the old hen house - the perfect venue.  She is able to enlist support from her younger siblings and their preparations begin. Sadly, though, these happy moments are fleeting as they receive news that the rent for the farm has been doubled. Mr Roberts begins to sell of the antique farm equipment and when this does not raise enough money he sells his beloved cattle and calves.  Hannah is distraught.  Now she must win the competition then she can give the money to her dad and their wonderful farm will be saved.

This is a book you will enjoy but you need staying power.  I started this book yesterday and read a few chapters but I was not completely hooked.  It was not until I reached page 188 I just had to abandon everything and keep reading through to the end.  The events of Chapter 25 will leave you gasping and just hoping everything will turn out alright for Hannah and Lottie even though their problems now seem insurmountable.

If you enjoy The Secret Hen House theatre you might also enjoy Ballet Shoes by Noel Stretfeild.   You might also like to read the first chapter.  Here is an interview with the author.  This is a special book which will be enjoyed by thoughtful readers who are prepared to let this story unfold slowly.

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