Reviewed performance: Saturday matinée, 4th Feb. 2012. Festival Theatre, Edinburgh. Swallows and Amazons tours nationally until May 2012.
One of the joys of attending theatre for children as an (admittedly rather short) adult is that one generally has a clear view of the action. So it was that on a chilly, windy day in Dùn Èideann, I found myself warm and with an uninterrupted view of the stage as National Theatre’s touring production of Swallows and Amazons began.
I had been apprehensive – I just wasn’t sure that Swallows and Amazons would work as a musical – but, the score is perfectly acceptable, if nothing particularly special. Provided by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy (no, really) the songs are not numbers, they’re not (with one exception) set pieces, and as such the show would do perfectly well without them. Only John’s solo adds to the narrative; from it we glean a deeper understanding of the boy’s motives, a move which makes the character infinitely more likeable. Even this song is instantly forgettable, though – you won’t be humming the tunes as you leave the auditorium.
Adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Tom Morris, Swallows and Amazons sticks fairly closely to Arthur Ramsome’s 1930 classic (with one glaring omission to which I will attend later). Ransome’s child characters, aged between 7-13, are portrayed ably by actors aged 22-38. Roger, aged seven, sports knee-pads and a five o’clock shadow, but such incongruencies can be overlooked when the talent on stage so completely inhabit their characters. Titty is mischievous and bouncing, Susan is the Angel in the House, John is Captain Sensible. But Roger, oh Roger. Roger is an utter joy to behold. He is seven, short-trousered and sharp. So utterly consumed by his seven-ness that it seems not at all odd to see a grown man throw himself face down on the floor in childish despair. There’s no high dramatics, though. Despite the pantomimic elements the show takes on part way through the second act, there’s no cartoonishness, no overwrought theatrics. Instead, we are treated to myriad subtleties, performances that have been, one feels, heavily workshopped but that shine.
While the playscript largely sticks to the detail of Ransome’s novel, and entirely sticks to its spirit, some changes are introduced. Through the Blackett sisters Edmundson introduces an element of class difference that is absent in the thoroughly middle-class world of Arthur Ransome. The sisters are raucous, boisterous in a way that we don’t expect girls in 1929 to be. This is, of course, one of the pleasures of the original text and one which transfers to the stage beautifully. The Amazons in this incarnation have the effect of knocking the Swallows down a peg or two, lambasting their sense of middle class entitlement. But not all Edmundson’s changes are as welcome.
No mention is made of the charcoal burners as gypsies, a distinction that is made clear in the book. Adults and parents, whom Ransome designates ‘natives’ are here made ‘barbarians’;
hints of British colonialism are erased in favour of apologetic reference to Spanish conquistadors, distancing the British young in both language and in time from the truth in their game. (EDIT Thanks to commenter Merrywether who tells me the conquistadors do appear in the original text.) They are invading forces, undoubtedly, but they identify with a movement removed from their modernity by centuries, not mere decades. This is no accident of scripting; it is a concerted effort towards the politically correct and it’s not necessary. The action, lest we forget, takes place over a single summer in 1929, a world where PC hasn’t been invented, and, even if it has, children don’t much care about it. It’s necessary for our youngsters to be made aware of the less savoury aspects of the history of this Island Nation. We might hope that they are appalled by it, and they may well be. But how are they supposed to learn critical reasoning skills if we sanitize the unsavoury away? This is our history, and we ought to be ashamed of it. But we ought not make a secret of it.
Titty suffers most from changes to the plot. A scene in which Titty (alone on Wildcat Island) is visited by Mother, is deleted. This scene is integral to the character’s development and informs the action that follows. Thus Titty’s overhearing of the thieves conversation becomes a dream sequence which she cannot quite trust to be accurate. The dream sequence has shades of Dumbo’s horrendous (and mentally scarring) pink elephants, and is the only real low point of the show.
Aside from this, though, the design is lovely. A feather duster and a pair of secateurs are transformed into a parrot; the sea is a ribbon agitated by the cast. The world on stage is one of childhood games and one into which the audience is willingly dragged. We are in cahoots with the children; when Roger learns to swim there is a spontaneous round of applause.
Though the Amazon pirates, played by Celia Adams and the distractingly beautiful Sophie Waller, are riotous good fun it is Stewart Wright’s Roger that steals the show. He will charm your socks off, and then he’ll charm them back on again. Swallows and Amazons is a story about the joys of childhood and the fallibility of adults. This production is a celebration of both. Were it in my power, I’d insist you go immediately to your nearest box-office and beg, buy or steal a ticket for every one you’ve ever met.