There’s a mix of schoolgirl acting ambition, disappointments of first love, and a bit of lost family treasure at the heart of ‘The Secret Hen House Theatre’ by Helen Peters, a delightful nostalgic tale and a nod at classic favourites such as ‘The Swish of the Curtain’ and the Noel Streatfeild ‘shoes’ stories.
But there is also plenty of modern-day edge running through the story of a schoolgirl wrapped up in her own thoughts and slowly waking up to some of the harsh economic realities of just how hard it is sometimes for parents to pay the bills.
Hannah is busy being interested in a boy at school and persuading her friend, Lottie, to put the play on at the farm (even though Lottie hates mud so much, Hannah sometimes has to carry her through it), and she is oblivious to the fact that the farm is not thriving.
Clayhill Farm is set in glorious Sussex countryside, and covers s enough acres for everyone to have completely forgotten a building substantial enough to stage a play. But at the start of the book. nobody cares very much about the farm.
Hannah only dreams of being an actress (like her mum, who died), and sneaks off to write poetry and plays, leaving her three siblings to help Dad (not an expert farmer or a businessman) with all the work.
But Dad has lost heart and would rather be taking the day off to show his antique tractor ‘if dad ever got anything mended, Hannah thought, he wouldn’t have to use his children as fences’.
Hannah fuels her ambition to be an actress and playwright and secretly enters her play for a local competition and stages it in her hen house, not thinking through any of the consequences of inviting members of the public (and non-farming folk) onto the farm – with truly catastrophic results.
She learns that her actions are only the final straw in a long decline, and she finally starts to wake up to what is truly important. Hannah realises that the farm has never made money and where all the funds have been coming from to keep it going – and now it looks like they will have to sell up, she finally realises how much it means to her. But will it all be too late?
When she focuses her attention on getting her family to pull together and help her father, everything starts to improve.
One of the strengths of the story is how unsentimental it is and it is not surprising to learn that the author herself grew up on a farm.
It’s a fun story with plenty of action, unexpected events and humour – vengeful schoolfriends, the inevitable competition disasters, arson – and it even all ends up with a big finish at Sothebys.
But there is also a subtle backstory that underpins all the action that it was Hannah’s mother that held everything together, who loved the farm more than acting, and without her the soul of the farm has gone too, making this story enjoyable on many levels.