Writer: Arthur Ransome
Adapter: Helen Edmundson
Composer: Neil Hannon
Co-Directors: Damian Cruden, John R. Wilkinson
Designer: Katie Sykes
Musical Director: Kieran Buckeridge
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s novel, published in 1930, presents three major problems in stage adaptation and performance. Much of the action involves careering about in small boats; the main characters are all children, the youngest not quite eight, and, the language and attitudes of middle-class children 90 years ago (even rather bohemian middle-class children) can be difficult to relate to. Damian Cruden and John R. Wilkinson’s lively and engaging production of Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon’s 2010 adaptation goes a long way towards overcoming these problems, but they never quite disappear.
The four Walker children, aged 12 or less, are holidaying with their mother on a farm in the Lake District: there’s also a baby, but she doesn’t really figure in the story. They get permission from their seafaring father to go camping on an island in the lake, using the small boat Swallow. Much of the action operates in a half-world somewhere between children camping and buccaneers buccaneering, especially when two astonishingly fierce sisters show up aboard the Amazon. War is declared; adventures are had; the Swallows and Amazons unite; and, finally, the children solve a real-life crime, albeit a relatively minor one, thanks to the resourcefulness of nine-year-old Titty, previously mocked for her dreamy imagination.
Katie Sykes’ designs – an image of an island floating above improvised-looking wooden structures and plenty of open space – are attractive and flexible, with the simple stylized boats readily maneuverable, though sometimes it’s less obvious where they were going and why. Generally, the reliance on the audience’s imagination works well, but there’s rather too much racing about and waving arms, especially unconvincing when the actors concerned are grown-ups: the adaptation was specifically made to feature an adult cast.
It’s interesting that the most believable of the Walker children is the sensible Susan, played by the excellent Laura Soper without the excesses that Hanna Khogali (Titty) and William Pennington (Roger) portray so successfully, she with a permanent expression of bursting with excitement, he working hard to channel his small boy. Alex Wingfield is restrained and fairly unstuffy as John, the oldest, but it’s difficult these days to believe in a boy who is shocked to the core by being called a liar, then the greatest insult you could throw at a 12-year-old boy, now a necessary qualification for political power. The Amazons, Nancy and Peggy, are more straightforward. They make their first raucous appearance, clambering from the Dress Circle in full fig as pirates, and from then on Anne-Marie Piazza and Rachel Hammond have a great time roistering around in fine panto style.
There are many incidental delights in Swallows and Amazons, not least the puppets of birds, but the outstanding feature of the production is the quality of the music. Neil Hannon’s songs are cleverly varied, sometimes witty, sometimes memorable, but always smartly integrated into the dialogue. Equally impressive – if not more so – is the quality of musical performance. Kieran Buckeridge is based mostly at the keyboard, venturing out occasionally as Uncle Jim the pirate, Ellen Chivers and Ed Thorpe join him on assorted instruments in between camping up small parts, and the six “children” complete an excellent instrumental ensemble – the singing’s pretty good, too.
Runs until 24 August 2019 | Image: Anthony Robling