I’ve witnessed some disruptive audiences in my time, but never before have I seen entire rows of children repeatedly launching missiles at an actor on stage. Fortunately this was not the work of a group of violent young rioters-in-training, but part of a rambunctious interactive finale to the stage adaptation of Swallows and Amazons, an entertaining 180 minute reminder of the importance and value of play.
Some may find it hard to relate to the opening events of Arthur Ransome’s much-loved story; a mother happily waves off her four young children – the smallest of whom cannot swim – to sail across a lake to camp on a small island on their own; or to the jolly-hockeysticks characters themselves, who ooze lashings of ginger beer and creamed rice from every pore. And in the first half it is the playful ways of telling the story and creating the action onstage which are more engaging than the story itself. An incredibly life-like parrot is created from a multi-coloured feather duster and a pair of pliers; a completely convincing fire emerges from the sound effects and actions of 3 pairs of hands; and sailing a boat at speed is conveyed by a member of the ensemble holding a jar of water and flicking it into the faces of the children to create the spray from the boat cutting through the water. The ensemble of ‘players in blue’ are theatrical jacks-of-all-trades as they act as musicians and puppeteers, and step in to play the parts of peripheral characters in the children’s world. In a clever and funny repeated visual trick they hold up moving circular frames to show us what is being seen by the children each time they look through their telescope.
Towards the end of the first half, the children of the ‘Swallows’ crew encounter their rivals – the ‘Amazons’ – two older and mouthier Northern girls who are much more interested in being pirates and setting off fireworks than doing what Mother would think sensible or rowing well to make Father proud – and subsequently things get a lot more fun from here on in. The action of the second half gathers pace as the two rival gangs attempt to commandeer each other’s boats, and then unite against the Uncle of the two Amazon sisters – who has refused to play with them all summer, instead holing himself up on his houseboat to write his novel. It’s not long before he has realised the error of his ways, and engages in the afore-mentioned final battle which incorporates the children in the audience. The audience interaction and clever sight gags of the closing scenes are a joyous reminder of the importance of imaginative and raucous play for adults and children alike.
Swallows and Amazons is more of a treat for the eyes than the ears – Robert Innes Hopkins set is full of wonder – machines that make noises, puppets made out of everyday objects and things that appear from nowhere; and James Farncombe’s lighting design particularly comes to life in the night-time scenes on the water. In contrast, the music, written by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, is hit and miss and on the whole not particularly memorable. The six actors playing the children avoid the usual potentially cringeworthy moments when adults play children and Akiya Henry’s portrayal of a child’s tantrum when not getting her own way is utterly realistic. On a final note, when even Lego have been subject to recent criticism for their ‘For Girls’ range, made up of – you’ve guessed it – pink sets to build beauty salons and bakeries and accessories including handbags and kittens, it is a delight to see a play where the girls are active participants – they are adventurers and pirates, and they sail boats, find treasure and build fires alongside their brothers. Infinitely more fun than being a passive pink princess or a WAG in training, no?
Reviewed for Left Lion