Review – Swallows and Amazons

Feb 3 2012 | By More

* * * * *

Stewart Wright as Roger Walker, Akiya Henry as Titty Walker, Katie Moore as Susan Walker and Richard Holt as John Walker. Photo Simon Annand

Festival Theatre
Review by Thom Dibdin

Rarely is the ability of theatre to create a world and tell a story demonstrated as powerfully as it is in this top notch touring production which is at the Festival Theatre, its second port of call in a tour around the UK.

Ok, so this is Arthur Ransome’s 1920s yarn of young kids messing around in boats in the Lake District. It contains all the hallmarks of the era and the form, but just as Ransome has transported generations of youngsters into his world, so this adaptation by Helen Edmundson, with songs by Neil Hannon, transports their audience into director Tom Morris’ world.

Here, the four oldest kids in the Walker family are allowed to go off on their own, sailing a dingy across the lake from the farmhouse they are staying in on holiday, to pitch camp on a nearby island. Naming themselves after the dingy – Swallow – they are soon hooking up with the two Blackett sisters whose own dingy is called Amazon.

Adventures ensue, mostly based around sailing the lake and enhanced by the children’s imaginations. Cormorants on a low, rocky island become harpies, the town at the head of the lake is renamed Rio and the curmudgeonly old man writing his book on a houseboat has to be Captain Flint – largely due to his possession of a parrot.

This middle-class utopia shouldn’t really work. There should be hoots of derision as one of the characters names is revealed to be Titty, howls of incomprehension when the reference points for the children’s adventure are Kipling and ancient history, and murmurings of discontent at the blatant use of nostalgia for simpler times to ramp up the emotional intensity of the piece.

None of this happens – not the negative responses at any rate. Young audiences are transfixed, silent and completely immersed in the world on stage. Adults have a tendency to cheer when the Swallows win through in their battles with the Amazons. And there are more than a couple of hankies out at the end for the nifty resolution.

Everything about the production is spot on. There are great performances – from both the main cast and the stagehands who are integral to the telling. The music helps drive the story and differentiate character without taking centre stage. The adaptation is true to its source material – the first of Ransome’s books – while adding a layer of interpretation not present in the original.

Fearsome and bold in their endeavours
Celia Adams as Nancy Blackett and Sophie Waller as Peggy Blackett. Photo Simon Annand

Celia Adams as Nancy Blackett and Sophie Waller as Peggy Blackett. Photo Simon Annand

By making this extra layer all about play, Edmundson and Morris are able to create for themselves a hugely inventive storytelling style.

It’s not uncommon in modern stage musicals for musicians to be on stage during a musical. And all over the theatre world, the stagehands are often seen but ignored.

Here, the stagehands are not just visible, but are musicians, part of the scenery and any extra characters who the children might bump into. At one point, one lies down on the stage to throw water into the face of Stewart Wright as the youngest Walker, Roger, on lookout at the front of Swallow as she tacks across the lake in a stiff breeze. When Akiya Henry as Titty Walker dives into the lake, she really does take a dive – from on top of the upright piano with the stagehands all lined up to catch her.

The performances are all top notch. Celia Adams and Sophie Waller run away with the roles of Nancy and Peggy Blackett both fearsome and bold in their endeavours – and an easily bickering pair, with bossy Nancy always knowing she is right and Peggy running to keep up in her shadow. Which is not to mention their other parts as musicians and workers of the wind sound effect machine.

Richard Holt leads the Swallows with all the complex mix of maturity and naivety of a twelve year-old as John Walker. Katie Moore is incorrigibly annoying as Susan Walker, always worried the worse will happen and ready with the sensible solution. Akiya Henry stands out as Titty – it is her imagination that really drives the whole plot. And Stewart Wright’s big frame might appear incongruous as Roger the youngest, looming over everyone else on stage, but it just emphasises his ungainliness.

I must confess to having been a complete cynic about this production from when I first heard of it. I loved the books as a child and the idea of bringing them to the stage just seemed inane. Doubly so to do so as a musical play.

There was no need for cynicism. Not even in a production which relies on such archaic ideas as telling the truth. Watching it, I was reminded that for a child – what ever age they live in – not being believed and accused of lying when you aren’t and are acting in good faith is one of the most debilitating, horrible feelings there is.

A brilliant, inventive, entrancing production for everyone over the age of six.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
Run ends Saturday
Shows: daily 7pm; Wed, Thurs, Sat mat, 2.30pm.
Festival Theatre website:

Swallows and Amazons on tour:
TUE 17 Jan – SAT 21 JAN Chichester Festival Theatre 01243 781312 book now
TUE 31 Jan – SAT 4 FEB Festival Theatre Edinburgh 0131 529 6000 book now
TUE 7 – SAT 11 FEB Theatre Royal Nottingham 0115 989 5555 book now
TUE 14 – SAT 18 Feb Belgrade Theatre Coventry 024 7655 3055 book now
TUE 21 – SAT 25 FEB Wycombe Swan Theatre, High Wycombe 01494 512 000 book now
TUE 28 Feb – SAT 3 MAR Malvern Festival Theatre 0845 287 2146 book now
TUE 6 – Sat 10 MAR Civic Theatre, Darlington 01325 486555 book now
TUE 13 – SAT 17 MAR Theatre Royal Norwich 01603 63 00 00 book now
TUE 20 – SAT 24 MAR West Yorkshire Playhouse 0113 213 7700 book now
TUE 27 – SAT 31 MAR Liverpool Playhouse 0151 709 4776
no booking fee
book now
TUE 3 – SAT 7 APR Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 01227 787787 book now
TUE 10 – SAT 14 APR Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield 0114 249 6000 book now
TUE 17 – SAT 21 APR Cambridge Arts Theatre 01223 503333 book now
TUE 24 – SAT 28 APR Grand Theatre Wolverhampton 01902 42 92 12 book now
TUE 1 – SAT 5 MAY Theatre Royal Plymouth 01752 230440 book now
TUE 8 – SAT 12 MAY Grand Theatre Blackpool 01253 290190 book now
TUE 15 – SAT 19 MAY New Theatre, Cardiff 029 2087 8889 book now


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