The best advice to anyone who wants to make theatre? ‘Life isn’t fair’ and ‘Be on time’, from actor Michael Simmonds. For those for whom the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd have an irresistible appeal (as participant or spectator), the following books, selected by Geraldine Brennan, offer a candid and enticing glimpse backstage, today or in the past.
National Theatre: All About Theatre
Walker Books, 978-1-4063-5869-8, £14.99 hbk
A substantial, classy guide with the high production values you would expect from this collaboration, exploring every aspect of theatre with reference to such recent successful National Theatre adaptations as War Horse, Treasure Island, Frankenstein and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The wig makers, set builders and stage managers who keep the show on the road add their voices alongside actors and directors. Designer Tim Hatley’s advice applies to all would-be theatre professionals. ‘Go and see things. Even if you think you’re not going to like it, just go. Also know that you want to tell stories.’
The Diamond of Drury Lane
Julia Golding, Egmont, 978-1-4052-3758-1, £6.99 pbk
The 2006 Nestlé Children’s Book Prize winner is the first in a series of ripping yarns in which the 18th-century setting of Mr Sheridan’s Theatre Royal plays second fiddle to the real-life drama surrounding Cat, the foundling girl brought up in the theatre, and her friends and enemies. But there’s still fascinating detail about how this Covent Garden institution kept Londoners entertained in theatre’s glory days.
The Positively Last Performance
Geraldine McCaughrean, Oxford University Press, 978-0-1927-3321-4, £5.99 pbk
Geraldine McCaughrean has written many excellent tales about plays and players: try A Pack of Lies and Pull Out All the Stops! This novel, inspired by contact with Margate’s Theatre Royal, is contemporary but timeless, and both comic and tragic. As Gracie’s parents give up the struggle to revive their ailing theatre in a seaside resort, Gracie encounters the actors and audience of the past (including a soon-to-be famous painter, Mr Turner) who teach her why towns need theatres. A breathtaking twist and a touching denouement earn a standing ovation.
Michelle Magorian, Troika Books, 978-1-9099-9104-0, £6.99 pbk
Part adventure tale starring a sparky 12-year-old East End acting student, Josie, this is also a celebration of Joan Littlewood’s achievement in bringing theatre to new audiences at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was published last year for the centenary of Littlewood’s birth and is set in the socially explosive, early 1960s London, with much evocative detail.
Josie struggles at her elitist theatre school until she is cast as a boy in a comedy, but her biggest break comes when a kidnapping subplot delivers her just where she needs to be: Littlewood’s stage.
Lyn Gardner, Nosy Crow, £6.99 pbk
Theatre critic Gardner presents the reality of 21st-century young people training for a life in theatre in a fun school-story format. Set in a stage school, with Olivia and her friends progressing through a term in each of seven books, the stories place themes such as jealousy and loyalty in a heightened context, with complex characterisation and all the charm of classics such as Ballet Shoes (see below).
Noel Streatfeild, Puffin, 978-0-1413-5980-9, £6.99 pbk
Amid current concerns that the performing arts are becoming the preserve of those with private incomes, this tale of three orphans who have every intention of earning their living on the stage is encouraging until you remember that it’s 80 years old next year. The daily grind of training at Madame Fidolia’s Academy bears fruit when the two eldest Fossil girls are cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and learn to fly on wires (Petrova would rather fly planes, and eventually does). Ballet Shoes is an all-round top ten book for me because it sparks joy, in the way that theatre does.
The Swish of the Curtain
Pamela Brown, Longwater Books, 978-0-9552-4280-9 £10 pbk
Another classic, published in 1941 when following the dream was rarely an option. The first book in the Blue Door Theatre series sees theatre-mad teens following their dream of renovating a derelict theatre without concern for crowdfunding or health and safety. Full of ‘just do it’ spirit with an ensemble cast of engagingly flawed characters, this is a stirring and good-humoured quest narrative packed with obstacles to be overcome.
Withering Tights: the Misadventures of Talullah Casey
Louise Rennison, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0-0071-5682-5, £6.99 pbk
The creator of Georgia Nicolson pokes fun at the more precious and obsessive aspects of stage school training, as townie Talullah follows her dream all the way to a stern moorland institution, Dother Hall. The sequels are called A Midsummer Tights Dream and The Taming of the Tights, and they are all wet-yourself funny in Rennison’s tradition.
Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays
Bravo, Mr William Shakespeare!
Marcia Williams, Walker Books, £6.99 each
Set in the original Globe theatre with additional dialogue from the groundlings, these editions in Williams’s comic strip style are perfect for introducing young children to the plays while sharing the excitement of live performance.
William Shakespeare: Scenes from the life of the world’s greatest writer
Mick Manning and Brita Granström, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 978-1-8478-0345-0, £12.99 hbk
A fun and informative curtain-raiser for early encounters with the plays, this stands out amid new books about Shakespeare’s world and work published ahead of the 400th anniversary of his death. With help from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Manning and Granström, a diehard information-book double act, are clear throughout about what we know about Shakespeare’s life (very little) and what we can reasonably imagine. The unreasonable imagination and genius of the man himself is lavishly celebrated in the context of the turbulent political life of his time and the place of the theatre in Elizabeth I’s England. The most famous plays receive appetising graphic treatments with the Bard’s words in speech bubbles.
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.