Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons
By Arthur Ransome, adapted by Helen Edmundson with music & lyrics by Neil Hannon

The Walkers:
John – Richard Holt
Susan – Katie Walker
Titty – Akiya Henry
Roger – Stewart Wright
Mother – Hilary Tones

The Blacketts:
Nancy – Celia Adams
Peggy – Sophie Waller

James Turner – Greg Barnett
Mr Jackson – Adrian Garratt
Mrs Jackson – Alison George
Policeman – Jon Trenchard

Band – Greg Barnett, Francesca Bradley, Neal Craig, Adrian Garratt, Alison George, Hilary Tones & Jon Trenchard

Director – Tom Morris
Set and costume design – Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting – James Farncombe
Sound – Jason Barnes
Musical supervisor / arranger / orchestrator – Sam Kenyon

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 20 December, 2011
Venue: Vaudeville Theatre, London

As Titty would say, “it is August in the year of our Lord Nineteen Twenty Nine” … and audiences at the Vaudeville Theatre are delightfully and utterly effectively transported back to a distant, far simpler time, in Tom Morris’s stage version of Arthur Ransome’s waterborne tale, Swallows and Amazons. First seen last Christmas at Bristol Old Vic, where Morris is now artistic director, this show with music (rather than a ‘musical’) now brings some summer sun to London’s winter before a four-month UK tour.

Morris and Helen Edmondson stay remarkably faithful to Ransome, even though all six children running the wind across (an intriguingly unnamed) Lake (seemingly it’s a conflation of Windermere and Coniston) are played by adults. Richard Holt, as 12-year-old John, Katie Walker as Susan (11), Akiya Henry as Titty (9) and, largest of them all, Stewart Wright as “nearly 8” Roger (7 as his siblings correct him), are plausibly gauche and awkward as the captain and crew of the Swallow, while Celia Adams and Sophie Waller are suitably tom-boyish as the rival crew of the Amazon.

The audience – of all ages – fell quickly under the spell of the children’s sense of adventure and their fervent imaginations that sees the lake as a far-away sea, with exotic names for islands (Wildcat, Cormorant) and settlements (Rio). Robert Innes Hopkins’s designs are equally imaginative, creating parrots out of a feather duster and a pair of secateurs, Roger’s bête noir – the harpy-like cormorants – from black bin-bags and shears, and the row-boats and dinghies out of wheeled platforms, curved wood in the shape of a prow and blue streamers to indicate the water. Attention to detail is apparent at every turn: the reed-disguised xylophone moving in tandem behind the pulsing motion of the children’s rowing to give the impression of how a rowing boat moves is just one further example and the show has the best use of a wind machine, creating the sound of the wind the children need to sail. And the audience helps too, especially those lucky enough in the Stalls who pass back models of Swallow and Amazon row by row. Wonderful!

It’s all done completely straight, allowing everyday items to help create a whole water-borne world, by engaging the audience’s imagination and Edmundson’s adaptation is helped along with similarly unfussy and completely in-character songs by tune- and word-smith Neil Hannon, of Divine Comedy fame. These are not songs in the style of big production numbers, but seem as effortlessly as the rest of the production to emanate from the story, and the crossing harmonic lines are much more impressive than most songs in a modern musical. I particularly liked ‘The Best of It’ and the song accompanying Titty’s dream of pirates stealing treasure, after she’s managed to take the Amazon, which had the galumphing tread of ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ from Dumbo. With all the instruments (up to three cellos, violin, two flutes, upright piano and saxophone included) played by members of the cast, and all nicely blended voices in close harmony, this is seriously classy stuff.

In lesser productions Akiya Henry’s irrepressible Titty and Stewart Wright’s impetuous Roger might have stolen the show, but Morris ensures a uniformity of ensemble that is a pleasure to watch, not least when Hilary Tones’s mother becomes Queen Isabella and supervises the walking of the plank of Greg Barnett’s Captain Flint (the Blackett girls’ uncle, James Turner, who has angered them for not playing with them).

In a West End that has lots of daytime children’s shows utilising theatres to maximum capacity, it is good – like the RSC’s Matilda – that Swallows and Amazons caters for an evening market with a thoroughly faithful, yet wonderfully innovative, re-telling of a classic British children’s book that widens the eyes of young and old.

Definitely recommended, not only in London (to 15 January), but also on the tour to Chichester, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Coventry, High Wycombe, Malvern, Darlington, Norwich, Leeds, Liverpool, Canterbury, Sheffield, Cambridge, Wolverhampton, Plymouth, Blackpool and Cardiff.

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