“Better drowned than duffers”
Originally a big success for the Bristol Old Vic last Christmas, Swallows and Amazons was revived for this festive season and has just spent a month in the West End at the Vaudeville Theatre ahead of an extensive UK tour. Starting off here in Chichester, Arthur Ransome’s 1930 novel has been adapted by Helen Edmunson, sprinkled with songs from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and directed by Tom Morris, it emerges as a delightfully inventive and highly imaginative production.
It works so well because it captures a long-lost spirit of play so very genuinely. From beginning to end, the show exudes a joyous playful spirit that almost immediately makes us forget we’re watching adults pretending to be kids. As the four Walker children set off to set up camp on an uninhabited island near their holiday home, they are whisked into a thrilling adventure beyond their wildest imagination and we are there with them for every beautifully-realised step.
Whether its the larks of the ensemble playing the scenes that the children see through their telescope, the hilarity of Roger’s attempts to swim, the bounding fun of the cast stalking each other through the aisles of the theatre, the breathtaking magic of walking the plank or the sheer exuberance that explodes with the delightful audience-involving final skirmish, the warmth with which it all executed means a smile is never far from the face. And there’s something so refreshing about being ensconced in a world where being called a liar is the worst thing imaginable, the combination of innocence and playfulness carefully calibrated to never cloy yet always endear.
Stewart Wright as Roger gains most of the laughs, how could he not as the biggest cast member playing the youngest, but he pulls off the innocent child’s simplicity perfectly; Richard Holt and Katie Moore imbue the older John and Susan (are all Susans in children’s literature destined to be sensible?!) with a deft maturity that never loses sight of the fact they are still kids too; and Akiya Henry is just marvellous as Titty – adorable, goofy witty and wise.
There’s excellent support across the actor-musician ensemble too, especially from Celia Adams and Sophie Waller as the strident, fine-voiced Amazons and from the incredibly hard-working and energetic Neal Craig who is responsible for some of the funniest moments of the first half. Sound effects and incidental music come from the cast too from a range of sources that evokes Propeller in its inventiveness and consequently the soundscape as a whole is wondrous. The music is folk-inflected and gentle rather than being forthright – this is a play with songs after all – but it fits into the aesthetic extremely well, under Jon Trenchard’s staff musical direction.
This is the perfect show to take a child too, even if it is just your inner child. A warm and generous piece of escapist entertainment that is extremely accomplished and well worth it, so go along and bask in the retro glow of a time gone by when everything was just much less complicated.