Swallows And Amazons – January 2012

7/10

By Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon, based on the book by Arthur Ransome

Directed by Tom Morris

Company: Children’s Touring Partnership/Bristol Old Vic

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 20th January 2012

I think I would have been better off not to have re-read the book shortly before going to see this wonderful adaptation. It took me a fair while to adjust my ideas, much as I loved some of the staging choices, and I would have probably found it an 8/10 experience if I’d warmed up sooner. As it is, I was thoroughly hooked by the end, joining in the shouts of ‘plank’ with enthusiasm. The cast all did a great job, and I hope they have a great time on tour.

The stage was littered with all sorts of objects before the start, some of which didn’t become clear until they were used. There were four tall irregular-shaped pillars along the back of the set, which each had a large band of white on them – I noticed during the interval that these were painted, and looked like brick. There was a picture frame hanging centre stage, and some musical instruments over in the far right corner, including a piano. I don’t remember anything else specifically, and they brought so much other stuff on during the play that I’d be misleading myself to attempt any more detail.

The play began with an old lady walking on to the stage, and sitting on a chair in the middle. She’d been carrying a pair of secateurs and a feather duster with bright red, green and yellow sections, and put them down to one side of the chair. As she looked through an old album of photographs, the characters of the Walker family started appearing on stage, with Mother and Father posing together in the central picture frame, Mother holding Fat Vicky, and other picture frames being held up for the rest of the family to pose behind. The old lady herself turned into Titty, and the feather duster and secateurs became the parrot. So now we had the four children, the baby and their parents. Father sailed away, and the action began with Roger arriving, breathless, with the telegram which would give them Father’s answer – to sail or not to sail.

Before I go any further, I must point out that the casting was weird and wonderful. Roger, the youngest child, nearly eight, was played by the tallest actor, and there aren’t many eight-year-olds with a beard! This worked really well, and gave us some humour from the start. The other ‘children’ were mostly to scale, although Susan was a bit on the small side. I always find the telegram a bit sniffly – “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown” – so this got me going early on, and then they were soon through the planning stage and off to the island. This was a musical, and the songs were pretty good, although I couldn’t always make out the words. The packing phase was done to music, and Swallow herself was a prow, a couple of wheeled dollies, a mast with a sail, some ropes and some ribbons – blue ribbons which other members of the cast held out and moved around to represent the water.

The story was told briskly, and while some bits were dropped – going to the farm to get the milk, for example – we didn’t miss much, and it made for a good piece of theatre. Other characters came on as needed, and there was plenty of music all the way through – this is a really talented bunch. Titty’s experience near Cormorant Island was staged as a dream sequence, with lots of pirate types carrying lots of boxes and singing a song, while the two ship’s companies and Captain Flint found the box the first time they searched the island. For the attack on Captain Flint’s ship, they passed out sponges to the audience, and we were told to throw them on the command ‘attack!’ which we did, and a fine old mess it made of the auditorium – great fun. When Captain Flint begged for mercy we were merciless, calling for the plank as loudly as we could (told you I was well into it by then). He dropped down through a trapdoor for this bit, and when he came back up and all was forgiven, they were about to head off for a feast on shore when he decided to give Titty a present for finding his book. The parrot was duly handed over, and with a final rousing song we were done.

The Amazons were also very good; two women with war paint and feathered headdresses. Peggy in particular had a great voice, and Nancy was all scowls, even when you’d expect her to be happy! Titty’s spell alone on the island came across better than the book for me – the way she read out her log entries was very funny. When anyone used the telescope, a round frame was held up and showed what they were seeing, whether it was Captain Flint sitting at his desk writing or Mother on her way to the island. Captain Flint’s ship was represented by a massive prow at the back of the stage, and it had a large mast too which may have been lowered down – I lost track a bit during the busy times. The reed beds were very well done, with the spare cast members holding long sticks and moving around the Swallow to show the way the reeds separated and came together again. The charcoal burners were included, but only to give the message about Captain Flint’s ship needing a lock – we didn’t get to see the snake – and this also allowed us to see John’s embarrassment at being called a liar when he tried to deliver the message to the Captain. It was good to see the way these children learned from their experiences, and from each other’s way of handling things. I also liked the way they meshed their fantasy versions of the lake and its islands, with Nancy recognising that Rio was a good name for the town and the Walkers accepting the Blackett’s name for the island.

Susan was much more priggish than I remember from the book, but it worked well enough for me, and the storm came early in this version, during the night raid on the Amazon’s boat shed. The sailing terminology was used sparingly – terms like ‘leading lights’ were demonstrated down at the harbour – so although it didn’t feel quite as inspiring in terms of the sailing, it still had that sense of adventure and freedom to use one’s imagination which is so strong in the book. The cormorants were quite scary. They were made out of bin bags and garden shears, and flew around in an intimidating manner.

Quite a few of us older children stayed behind for the post-show, and there was much praise from all sections for their performance. There were many stories of children young and old being introduced to the books and loving them; one chap has only got one more book before his wife divorces him, apparently – I hope for his sake that she’s a slow reader. It all went quite well until one man asked a rather hostile sounding question about what they were doing to take this sort of show to disadvantaged kids who might never see a play or read many books. The cast handled it very well, explaining the purpose of the Children’s Touring Partnership, and we finished on a lighter note, thankfully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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