Arthur Ransome’s children’s classic Swallows and Amazons, and its eleven successors have some very devoted fans. I am one of them, so when I sat down in a packed expectant West Yorkshire Playhouse to see Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon’s new adaptation I was taking a bit of a risk. I was in danger of spoiling some very cherished memories of books which I read over and over again, no matter how glowing the reviews have been. I needn’t have worried. This is a beautifully judged piece of family theatre (something that we don’t get enough of outside of pantomime) and the writing treads exactly the right path, utilising both a gentle irony which never descends into parody and showing great respect for the seriousness of the children’s imaginative life. As an adult, we are allowed to see and understand what is really going on by the use of gentle single line interventions that make us smile as we read between the lines, and as children we are drawn into the powerfully evocative imaginative life of the children on stage, willing them to succeed.
Complex, mature and imaginative outdoor play is something that few children are given the freedom to do today. They are constantly watched over by “barbarians” of one kind or another and it would be an unusual kind of father today who would send a telegram like,”Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won’t drown.” Even when Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons back in 1930 there was an element of fantasy about this. The books have always been most read and most loved by bookish children who would never have been given, or coped with, the kind of freedom that the children in the book are allowed. Ransome wrote the book for the original Swallows, his friend’s children who he sailed with on the lakes, and so it is grounded in a real sense of place and an understanding of children.
The masterstroke of this production is that it understands that this kind of imaginative play is at the heart of the book, however real the sailing and camping which provides the setting for the games may be. From beginning to end it is shot though with playful flights of fantasy. Given a few bits of wood, a pole, some rope, a ribbon and a blue flag the swallows can sail across the stage on a tiny trolley. The puppet cormorants from Cormorant island can fly on wings made from black plastic, an owl which is nothing more than a few feathers attached to the ends of an actor’s fingers can swoop down, and the reeds of the Amazon river materialise from two constantly shifting rows of poles. There are so many examples of this kind of invention, invention which only works thanks to the accuracy of the mime and some split second timing, that you are able to leave reality behind and lose yourself in the story which is being told. It is a great piece of ensemble work. There is a moment where Titty dives, with graceful confidence, into thin air and is caught by a row of waiting arms which is quite magical. This is a classic drama trust exercise and it sums up how well this company is working together.
The children are all played by adults, not that you would notice, and they work perfectly together. The best compliment that I can pay them is that they gave me the confidence to leave behind the cherished images in my head which I have carried for many years and allow them to create something new. All of them came to life in believable and strong performances which steered entirely clear of sentimentality by sheer force of conviction. John Walker in particular has some lines and attitudes which are deeply unfashionable today. He is badly hurt by being called a liar and has a high moral code which he adheres to and Richard Holt manages to play this aspect of him without ever making him look priggish. Katie Moore has fine comic timing and a lively energy which saves Susan from being just a boring little wannabee housewife. Akiya Henry was very touching as Titty. She is by far my favourite character in the books, quiet, sensitive and vulnerable, but by no means a wimp, and I felt for her. Roger is the one Swallow who I would have approached differently but Stewart Wright does what is asked of him very nicely and the audience loved him. Nancy (Celia Adams) and Peggy (Sophie Waller), the two Amazon pirates are a delight, exactly as I would have wanted them. There is great poignancy in both performances as well as conviction. They are not really causing mayhem and destruction- they need to get back for their tea and they adore their uncle who usually spoils them rotten- but we can be well aware of that while at the same time completely believing in the seriousness of their piratical ambitions. The clarity of this dual viewpoint is the payback for having adult actors playing the roles rather than children.
The direction, by Tom Morris, is pacy and clever and the music, by Neil Hannon, is simple and catchy and full of atmosphere. The Amazon pirates are given the kind of song that they deserve and they make the most of it. There is some lovely work from the whole company throughout in the background as well as some nicely sung solos and some lovely harmonies.
I am not going to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book but it was an absolute joy to sit in the middle of seven hundred and fifty people who were relishing the chance to be part of what was happening on stage and roaring their support. And no, it wasn’t just the children………….