Swallows & Amazons – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Karl Hornsey, August 2019
Following on from last year’s successful summer run of The Secret Garden, York Theatre Royal have tapped into another children’s favourite this year, bringing Swallows & Amazons to the stage. And it seems set to prove another inspired choice.
Sticking closely to Arthur Ransome’s 1930 novel, co-directors John R Wilkinson and Damian Cruden have recreated the daring adventures of six children, evoking a time of innocence that still resonates today. Some novels are considered timeless in their themes and influences, and Swallows & Amazons falls firmly into that category. Even without the beautiful scenery of the Lake District that made the 1974 film adaptation such a winner, this takes us back into a world when children were allowed to roam free, using their imagination to create their own lands and adventures. And judging by the looks of wonder on the faces of some of young children near us, this production is likely to help inspire a whole new generation down that same path.
“Array of fine talents”
The story focuses on four children from the Walker family – John, Susan, Titty and Roger – as they set out on their dinghy (Swallow) in search of adventure, which they find in spades when they meet the Blackett sisters, Nancy and Peggy, who are on board their own vessel (Amazon). A battle for supremacy of the seas ensues, and the families join forces to tackle the perceived common enemy – the Blacketts’ Uncle Jim (played by the outstanding musical director Kieran Buckeridge), who sees the Walker children as a threat and refuses to take them seriously when they warn him of burglars in their midst.
While all of this sticks very closely to Ransome’s original plot, the key aspect of this production comes in the musical. In fact, music is at the very heart of everything about this play. Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy fame composed the music and from the very first scene, it’s clear that the story will be told not only through the acting skills of the fine cast, but also through song and their musicianship. There is at least one musician on stage at all times, often several more, with all of the cast demonstrating an array of fine talents on any number of instruments.
Once you’ve got used to adults cast as children and let yourself become immersed into their world, this is a charming production that perfectly demonstrates why the story keeps being told over and over again – 2016 being the most recent, with the release of another feature film.
The stage design allows the cast to fully purvey the dangers, fears and nervous excitement of being lost at sea or stranded on an island, including a very handy stretch of water set into the stage that the cast do very well to avoid falling into. This is very much an interactive play, with the cast entertaining the children beforehand and popping up at various points in and around the audience, and looks set to win over the hearts and minds of a whole new generation over the next few weeks in York.
images: Ant Robling