Review: Swallows and Amazons

I have fond memories of a summer spent delving in and out of Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s novel, Swallows and Amazons, so it was with fairly high, nostalgia-charged expectations that I arrived at the Sheffield Lyceum for Bristol Old Vic’s production, currently touring after sell-out success in Bristol and the West End.

It certainly didn’t disappoint. Helen Edmundson’s script brings the novel to life in a wonderfully effusive fashion, capturing all the salient elements of the story and establishing strong characters from the largest role to the smallest. Set in 1929, the stage show elegantly brings to life the playfulness of the novel. It also manages to cleverly and delicately balance this with the extreme seriousness of the game of goodies versus baddies that the main characters, all of whom are children, play, first at war with Amazons Peggy and Nancy before joining forces to launch a united attack on the deadly Captain Flint.

At the centre of the story are the Walker children, ranging from Roger, aged nearly eight, to Captain John, the eldest at 12.  There is a real sense of family unity and the intricate relationships between the siblings here, with a particularly notable performance from Katie Moore as Susan, struggling against her motherly tendencies and desire to make everyone tea and buttered eggs. Richard Holt adeptly captures the conflicting emotions of a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, and Akiya Henry is mesmerising as middle child Titty, quietly philosophising on having to shout to be heard when you are neither youngest nor oldest in a beautiful solo. Because this is a musical as well as an adaptation, and Neil Hannon’s lyrics and melodies are beautifully evocative of the sense of space and freedom that the children feel as their imaginations run wild.

Much about the production is true to its early twentieth-century roots with lovely contemporary costumes (think cricket jumpers and shorts), but there are ingenious modern twists round every corner. Songs have tinges of various musical traditions and the most notable of this is the unforgettable ‘Amazon Pirate’ song. The wonderfully villainous (but ultimately good-hearted) Amazons, Celia Adams and Sophie Waller, go with the flow here, turning their anthem into a raucous rap. Things – props, animals, settings – are brought to life in a vibrant fashion, too, with an ethos of “make do and mend”. Everyday objects become anything from a mythical harpy made of secateurs and bin bags to picture frames that reveal what’s going on in windows and at the end of telescopes. There is a level of detail and intelligence in the design here that is just wonderful to watch and is deliciously voyeuristic.

We are taken on an engrossing journey with the Walkers as they travel about the stage in skeleton rowing boats and throw themselves around with a wonderfully childish energy and enthusiasm. Stewart Wright as baby of the family Roger provides a masterclass in acting a very young role without relying on stereotype or caricature, and rightly gets many of the laughs. One of the cleverest elements of this production is the use of an ensemble who basically dash about the stage with boundless energy doing this, that and everything. Music is played live on stage by the talented group, who also sing, multi-role, control puppets and become furniture, trees and even the sea when needed. It’s hard to single out anyone from this talented group, but Greg Barnett as principal “Barbarian” (adult, to you and me) is lots of fun and a jolly good sport as misunderstood pirate Captain Flint.

Full of unforgettable magic moments that will really make your spine tingle, this is definitely not just one for kids. Whilst they will love the action-packed antics and audience participation, director Tom Morris has captured the near impossible; he has created a production that is for anyone who can remember days when a penknife could be a sword to rival Excalibur, a feather duster might take on a life of its own and pirates really could be around any corner. If Swallows and Amazons are forever, long may their reign continue.

Swallows and Amazons is at the Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday 14 April. Tickets and more information from www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.

It then continues its tour of the UK until Saturday 19 May. For more details, visit www.swallowsamazons.co.uk.

Image credit: Simon Annand