Writer: Arthur Ransome
Adaptor: Bryony Lavery
Director: Katie Posner
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Just over a year after opening, Chester’s Storyhouse delivers its second fast-paced version of a classic children’s novel. Last Christmas saw Enid Blyton’sThe Secret Sevendeftly brought to the stage by Storyhouse Director Alex Clifton, and we get another helping of good clean fun in this perfectly pitched summer treat – Bryony Lavery’s new adaptation of Arthur Ransome’sSwallows and Amazons.
On a long, hot, 1930s summer day, the Walker children set out in their boat for a nearby island. From the moment they cast off, John, Susan, Tatty and Roger are on an adventure, their heads filled with stories of perilous sea voyages, castaways and pirates. Encounters with ‘Captain Flint’ (an elderly adventurer writing his memoirs on a houseboat), and the Blackett sisters (the Amazons) offer all sorts of chances for reconnaissance, battles, alliances, the inevitable recovery of treasure and a safe return home for tea and cake.
Lavery’s adaptation retains all of the charm of the Ransome’s original story. There’s no great attempt to update the story, giving full credence to the timelessness of the novel. What adds the extra energy to please a modern audience comes from the pace of Katie Posner’s direction, and the whimsical design by Rhys Jarman. Wheelbarrow boats seem to bob in the water, puppet birds swirl and dive (the cormorant is a triumph), and the simple wooden set, festooned with strings of lights and brightly coloured bunting creates a folksy, nautical feel to the whole space.
Live music, delivered on stage by the ensemble cast, who also play a host of characters, occasionally detracts from the spoken text, but generally offers a jaunty backdrop to the story. The cast all sing (perhaps with not quite enough gusto at times), and there’s some very jolly dancing.
Katie Posner’s direction fully embraces the playfulness of the story. The children play at being grown-ups, they form a gang, when Tatty (Claudia Grant) is left on her own she plays alone, imagining herself to be Robinson Crusoe, a stick standing in for a parrot. Grant delivers a charming and surprisingly subtle performance as Tatty, the brave tomboy, described by her dad as sometimes having too much imagination, who almost caves in when mum offers the chance to abandon the trip and return home to a comfy bed with a hot water bottle, but stays the course in the name of adventure.
The mostly young cast have a infectious energy. Aryana Ramkhalawon as Amazon Nancy and Charlotte Workman as her sister Peggy are a great comic duo, and Mitesh Soni gets lots of laughs as Roger, the little brother that gets dragged along, slightly against his will.
This 1930s adventure story makes interesting viewing for a 2018 audience. Although the children’s nurse and the Dixon’s next door perceive allowing four children to go off in a boat to an island alone as complete madness, the Walker’s are determined that their kids will grow up to be independent and fearless. The story perfectly reflects the on-going debate around what’s considered responsible parenting. Swallows and Amazons is all about children’s imaginations and the risk required to let them fly.
The Saturday matinee played to a buzzy auditorium, packed with families (and plenty of grown-ups). It will be interesting to see the show transfer to Storyhouse’s outdoor theatre space in Grosvenor Park later in the summer (14 July-26 August). On a warm evening with a hearty picnic, it’s hard to imagine a better night’s family entertainment.
Runs until 30 June 2018 | Image: Contributed