Writer: Susie McKenna (adapted from the novel byIan Serraillier)
Composer: Steven Edis
Director: Susie McKenna
Reviewer: Paul Couch
“We can’t have migrants wandering all over Europe!” No, not an extract from UKIP’s latest manifesto, but a proclamation from an over-zealous and xenophobic Burgermeister in Sell A Door Theatre/Belgrade Theatre’s excellent adaptation of Ian Serraillier’s 1956 novel, The Silver Sword. The contemporary resonance ofSerraillier’s plot cannot be ignored.
Based upon what The Times once hailed as one of the top 50 greatest children’s books of all time, The Silver Sword is a dark tale for sure, but one entirely suitable for older children. Three siblings are separated from their parents among the rubble of war-torn Warsaw – teenagers Ruth and Edek, and little sister Bronia. They meet Jan, a devious and emotionally-scarred orphan. Jan has a paperknife (the titular Silver Sword) that the children’s father gave him at a chance meeting and the four set off across Poland and Germany in search of their parents, whom it’s believed have fled to Switzerland.
It may not sound like a likely candidate for a musical but Steven Edis’ beautiful score is evocative and moving, with undertones of eastern Europe and even a hysterically funny nod towards the musical canon of Noël Coward. The score is performed primarily by actor-musicians but is entirely in the context of the piece and in no way incongruous.
Susie McKenna, who also adapted Serraillier’s source material, directs her cast deftly and with pace. Scene transitions tend to be a little clunky at times, but it’s difficult to suggest how this might be improved upon in a mid-scale venue.
Rachel Flynn is all stiff-upper-lip and surrogate mum as Ruthwhile Oliver Buckner gives Edek an understated sensitivity and vulnerability that contrasts beautifully with his older sister. On this occasion, little Bronia is performed by Megan Parry with an adult-grade confidence that would be the envy of many trained actors.
Tom Mackley’s Jan is a powerhouse of fractured passion – by turns rude, recalcitrant but with a clear longing to be loved, although it’s his own surly behaviour that stops anyone from filling this emotional vacuum.
In a variety of other rôles, Sue Appleby, Julian Harries, Alexander Knox, John O’Mahoney, Lucy Tregear, and Nathan Turner excelwith sturdy vocal performances of Edis’ score and engaging, believable characters. Their musicianship is equally as adept, giving a solid bedrock to the work.
Lotte Collett’s set is simple but hugely effective, the back-projected images of a decimated eastern Europe are both haunting and heart-rending.
If the production has any flaw, it’s in its title. The Silver Sword is something from a bygone age and, in the 21st Century, has a whiff of Disney about it (and was even renamed Escape From Warsaw in the USA) so it’s scant wonder that it’s proving a tough sell for theatres. But the misconception does the piece a grave injustice and audiences should be flocking to this fascinating odyssey based on real-life people and events.
Reviewed on 2 November 2015 – Touring until 7 November 2015 | Image: Robert Day