Swallows and Amazons, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show details
The National Theatre and Children’s Touring Partnership present the Bristol Old Vic production of Swallows and Amazons
Script: Helen Edmundson, Music & Lyrics: Neil Hannon, Director: Tom Morris, Director of Movement: Toby Sedgwick, Set and Costume Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins, Musical Supervision/Arrangements/Orchestrations: Sam Kenyon, Lighting Designer: James Farncombe and Sound Designer: Jason Barnes
Akiya Henry (Titty Walker), Richard Holt (John Walker), Katie Moore (Susan Walker), Stewart Wright (Roger Walker), Celia Adams(Nancy Blackett), Sophie Waller (Peggy Blackett)

Greg Barnett, Francesca Bradley, Neal Craig, Adrian Garratt, Alison George, Hilary Tones, Jon Trenchard (ensemble)
Running time

A recent episode of Family Guy parodied a scene from 1987 movie The Princess Bride in which the grandson tells the grandfather he doesn’t want him to read the “stupid” fairytale because nobody reads anymore as there’s computer games and TV now.  

This may be true – and the old days of hoards of children playing freely in the open air from dawn to dusk may be long gone – but being at the theatre yesterday evening and witnessing the engrossing effects of a simple tale highlighting children's capacities to use their imagination exemplified that technological advancements and computerised graphics have nothing on the mind’s eye.

Some may consider Arthur Ransome’s 1930 classic a peculiar pick for stage adaptation due to its infatuated trivia on boats and camping which smacks of another, much more sepia-tinted age, yet Helen Edmundson’s version scours away the unnecessary details to leave the heart of the story at the foreground – the untainted, surging joy of play.  

The Walker Children (John 12, Susan 11, Titty 9 and Roger almost 8) are granted permission to sail their boat to a small island on the Lake District and camp out for a few days for the summer holidays. There they battle with their rival Amazons, the Blackett sisters, Peggy and Nancy before joining forces to take down the dastardly, bad-tempered Captain Flint, a “Barbarian” grown-up uncle of the Blacketts, who’s been too busy writing his novel that he has no time to play.

Balancing the needs of an unfamiliar, new audience to the tale and those who inevitably bring along their nostalgic attachment is no easy feat, yet Tom Morris’ direction runs with the idea of theatre as child’s play – the ultimate fantasy island – inspiring simplicity in delivery and boisterous dynamism from the cast, perfectly interspersed with Neil Hannon’s charming score which thankfully is far from maudlin and adds a lovely layer of charm without sentimentality.

The audience become full conspirators in the adventures of the children through simple staging techniques invoking everyone’s imagination, making us believe as much as the characters, such as a parrot made from a feather duster and pliers, or to the enchanting depiction of a crackling campfire through hand-clapping and finger-clicking.

Stage-hands double up as musicians in a multi-faceted ensemble whose timing and energy is impeccable, with great performances all round from the main sextuplet of child portrayers; the main charm of this production is it manages to feel completely fresh in its clever DIY aesthetic approach, as though it’s all happening for the first time. Although the storytelling is accomplished and there is a strong character development throughout, with each child learning a valuable lesson or skill, it doesn’t always ring true to the 1929 setting of the piece in word or song, but it definitely does perfectly encapsulate the true meaning of Ransome’s book – the innocent spirit of adventure.

Engrossing for adults and children, this production will catapult “Barbarians” back to a time when stresses and strains were nowhere in site and your only problem was working out your next quest. It’s the perfect way to forget about your woes and get lost in magic… and as you leave the theatre you will surely puff out your chest and continue to hum the chants of the Swallows and Amazons.

Show Times

Ends Saturday, 7pm (matinee 2pm)