REVIEW: Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather is an inspiration to every youngster

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A line of children snaked up one of the seating aisles at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Each one clutched a piece of paper hoping the iconic figure is the seventh row would sign it.

No, this wasn’t the preamble to a pop concert with children desperate to meet a member of One Direction.

This was the play of a book written for young people - and the person everyone wanted to greet and secure an autograph from was author Jacqueline Wilson.

The programme notes said Ms Wilson would be coming to the show many times ‘so maybe we’ll have a happy chance encounter’.

So it proved to be on Wednesday, and the world renowned writer was more than happy to oblige her adoring fans.

Of course, Ms Wilson is not merely an extraordinarily nice lady who clearly wants to encourage a whole generation of youngsters to experience the joys of reading and writing - an aspiration I could not endorse more.

She is an amazing scribe - with that all too rare knack of setting youngsters free within their imaginations.

There is very little that her books have in common with those of Enid Blyton, two generations before, save for this remarkable skill and chiselling young heroes and heroines in the shape of fearless independents.

Blyton’s middle class role models showed gritty determination, courage, and a loyalty to their friends - that youngsters respond to warmly. All this, in a world of adults whose frailties are all too clear to see.

Ms Wilson’s amazing Hetty Feather has that same spirit of self-determination, of making mistakes, of learning by them, of following a dream against all odds. Of being a good friend and sister.

This production starts uncertainly, with two musicians in warm-up mode giving the impression this is pantomime rather than theatre.

But they are excellent musicians and when the drama starts it’s clear this is an amazing piece of entertainment.

It simply bursts with acrobatic energy and life - as it follows Hetty’s beginnings as an abandoned baby trying to make sense of her life at an austere Victorian foundling school through to her dream of joining a circus.

Phoebe Thomas is a spell-binding Hetty capturing all her wild enthusiasm and boundless emotion. Wow, what a star performance.

The rest of the small cast slip seamlessly from one role to the next with power and dextrous poise.

The young audience adored the whole evening, demanding more with whoops and shouts at the end.

For me, the real magic was the impact of the author herself.

Role models that encourage reading and writing to this degree deserve the biggest round of rapturous applause.

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