Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won’t drown. So says the Walker children’s father at the start of Swallows and Amazons, as he sets them off on an adventure in the Lake District. Staging such an evocative and well-loved story could so easily hit the rocks but this touring version of The Bristol Old Vic’s production is staged with such charm that there’s no danger of this company drowning.
Arthur Ransom’s 1930 novel may, on first thought, now seem slightly out of step with modern childhood; it’s wholesome innocence seeming to belong to a bygone age. But look closer and the themes of children wanting to forge their own path, have adventure and, of course see adults as villains rings as true now as they did then.
Helen Edmundson’s adaptation acknowledges this sense of a bygone era, starting the show with a now elderly Titty Walker sitting in her attic and recalling her childhood adventures. Her attic becomes her playground, a feather duster a parrot, bin bags and garden shears a cormorant and the waves of the Lake district suggested by a couple of spools of ribbon.
It’s all deceptively simple but one that totally transports you into the Lakes. There’s no attempt to disguise the fact that adults are playing children (in fact the tallest actor plays the youngest child) but it’s played with such conviction, that, along with the staging, the audience is instantly drawn in and disbelief suspended.
Tom Morris’ direction makes great use of the visual elements of the show, playing with scale and movement to create a constantly shifting world where the elements of wind and rain almost become characters in their own right.
Underscoring the action is a wonderfully atmospheric score by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. Musically, though, it’s far removed from Hannon’s pop career – a delightfully melodic score that echoes the natural elements of the piece before exploding into a more rumbustious celebration of piratical daring-do.
There’s fine performances from the entire company; Richard Holt as the eldest John, trying to be the substitute for an absent father, Katie Moore’s voice of reason, Susan, and Stewart Wright’s ‘towering’ performance as the youngest sibling, Roger. There’s also strong work from the Amazon’s, Celia Adams and Sophie Waller, both suitably blood thirsty as befitting true pirates.
There is also a beautifully observed performance from Akiya Henry as Titty Walker, outwardly full of bravado but inwardly full of self-doubt. This is, however, a truly ensemble piece with the entire 13-strong company playing the music and providing the imagery that drives this narrative.
A true test of any family show is if it can engage both adults and children. Here, the answer is an emphatic yes. There’s enough spectacle and action to keep the youngest members of the audience enthralled, including an audience-participatory pirate battle, while older viewers will enjoy the reflections of a more innocent era, though a time when we begin to realise that life is about to change and we need to find our own feet.
As the good ships Swallow and Amazon sail out across the auditorium, the entire audience have been drawn into Ransome’s watery world. Allegiances formed and battles won, it would be harder to imagine a more perfect production as an introduction to theatre. With or without children, take sail to Swallows and Amazons or risk being a duffer.
Originally written for The Public Reviews