Lashings of tunes as Five sally forth

Tim Minogue on the musical bringing Enid Blyton to the children of the 1990s
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For a grown-up, Dan Crawford is a bit of a brick. In fact he's a jolly good egg. For he is turning the adventures of Enid Blyton's Famous Five - Julian, Dick, Anne, their tomboy cousin George and Timmy the dog - into a musical.

Two hundred children crowded into a theatre in Islington, north London, last week to audition for the roles of the wholesome foursome who, in Blyton's timeless middle-class England, sally forth from Kirrin Cottage to do battle with smugglers, pirates and spies, fortified by frequent picnics supplied by their Aunt Fanny - washed down, of course, with lashings of ginger beer.

The show, which starts a nationwide tour in Basildon on 30 January, could be the surprise hit of 1997. It is to play a week in each of 28 towns until mid-August, and the bookings are still coming in. A West End run is being discussed. "We tried it out over the Easter holidays and it was a great success," said Mr Crawford, artistic director of the King's Head Theatre. "Action never dates, even if the clothes and the slang seem a bit quaint."

Ben Jenson, 11, from Folkestone, who hopes to get the part of Julian, had stayed up until 2am to read 14 chapters the night before his audition. "I like the slang: they say things like `Golly!' and `Jolly Good Egg!' It's just like we'd say something was `cool'."

Olivia Hallinan, 12, from Middlesex, played Anne in last Easter's production. She has the assurance of one who has already had TV appearances in Just William and The Bill under her belt: "The show is lively, nice and jolly. I hope I get the part because it would be really exciting to go on tour." Her friend Lauren Godbold, 12, from Chessington, thinks George is a better part. "She's a more exciting person. She seems really strong on the outside but is actually more sensitive inside."

Ben McCosker, 14, from Coventry, is an old hand: he has played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! at the London Palladium and was Gavroche in Les Miserables. He finds it easy to imagine a child's life in the 1940s: "They didn't have any computers or TV or anything. They had to find some way to occupy themselves, so they went and had adventures."

The musical, which combines the stories of the first two Famous Five adventures, Five On A Treasure Island and Five Go Adventuring Again, first published in 1942, was co-written by John Hogg, Robert Dallas and Stephanie Crawford, Dan's wife.

The children go to the seaside to stay with cousin George, whose father, Uncle Quentin, happens to be a boffin working on a secret project. He employs a tutor for the summer, Mr Roland, whom George suspects of being a spy. She is vindicated when Mr Roland steals Uncle Quentin's secret formula and The Five set out to recover it.

For Stephanie Crawford - "I'm American, so I hadn't read the stories as a girl" - they are "marvellous tales of courage and adventure. I like the way the boys and girls have the adventures together". The musical will be part of a wave of Blyton-mania likely to engulf Britain in 1997, the centenary of the author's birth. A new television series of Famous Five adventures will be screened in the spring and a centenary edition of the books is planned, using the original illustrations by Eileen A Soper; earlier this month a series of CD-Roms were launched. Blyton books sell eight million copies a year and have been translated into more than 30 languages.

As for the English: "Maybe it'll be the new slang for the 1990s," says Ms Crawford. "We'll know we have a hit on our hands if children are going around in a year's time saying `I say, George, you're a real scout and no mistake!' "