Swallows and Amazons at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, until Jan 18, 2014
Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, has a beard, and muscular hairy legs, but half a minute into Swallows and Amazons you no longer notice, such is the imaginative power of the production at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake.
This musical version of Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s story, in which a group of children are allowed to camp on an island in the Lake District, is a triumph in every department. It’s the adaptation by Helen Edmundson, with songs by Neil Hannon, that was launched at the Bristol Old Vic and transferred to the West End two Christmases ago. There, not much in the way of memorable melody but a lot of charm.
Here, Keswick director Stefan Escreet has taken the show to another level, with strong characterisation that brings out a sense of humour missing from the earnest original tale, and a set of creative genius from Martin Johns. The essence here is not that children should be allowed the freedom to sail and camp on their own, but that they should be allowed the freedom to make-believe and to play. So the props are all household items and junk, the boat an upturned table, the tents made of clothes horses, and the suspension of disbelief never falters. Cormorants? Parrots? Go and see how they do it.
Those familiar with the last filmed version of the story (way back in 1974 – a new production is promised next summer) will recall the elegant and genteel Virginia McKenna as mother, and Ronald Fraser playing Captain Flint as an affable uncle. Here the grown-up characters are seen through the children’s imagination, so Heather Phoenix is truly queen of the natives, and Martin Fisher’s Captain Flint is both a foppish intellectual and a sea captain who’s still a boy at heart.
The essential elements of the children’s characters are caricatured with a great sense of fun. Joel Sams is principled and honourable John, torn between wanting to play and wanting to be a man like his father. Nadia Morgan’s Susan is obsessively sensible, fretting over skipped lunches and mothering the joyously playful James Hogg as Roger. Frances Marshall captures the nature of fanciful Titty, while Rosalind Steele and Caroline Hallam as Nancy and Peggy are ferocious pirates with by far the best songs and dance routines.
Adult actors all, but these are children on stage with tantrums and sulks, fears, squabbling and sibling rivalry. Where their worlds collide with those of adults in the narrative is where the imagination of the production and design is at its finest, particularly in the encounter with the charcoal burners. To describe how THEY are played would spoil the fun, because you are going to see this show. You might go to get in touch with your inner child, or you might be taken along by the next generation of young Ransome fans of whom there were many in the audience for opening night. It’s clear that the power of good storytelling is timeless.
Swallows and Amazons plays at the Theatre by the Lake until January 18, when all attending are invited to dress as pirates. It’s Arthur Ransome’s birthday. He would be 130 but still not grown up.
Box office: 017687 74411