Swallows and Amazons, Bristol Old Vic

swallows1FOR my ninth birthday, my godfather sent me a book and a letter saying “my goodness, it will be double figures next time!” (silly the things you remember). The book was Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.

From the first sight of that distinctive cover with its pen and ink drawings and maps, I was hooked.

This story of adventures on the high seas of the Lake District, of brave children setting sail to distant islands, of storms and pirates and barbarians, charcoal burners and Harpies, hot chocolate and vivid dreams was thrilling and totally believable. We didn’t have fells or lakes but we ran wild in the open spaces and woodlands of the New Forest around our village, set off on our bikes with sandwiches for whole day expeditions, panned for “gold” in forest streams and imagined we were escaping from villains as we crawled along the bracken-covered “tiger tunnels” on the heath behind our house.

It seems like a more innocent time, very different from our risk-averse and often paranoid world but Helen Edmundson’s marvellous adaptation for the stage of the Bristol Old Vic reminds us that the story is really timeless, that courage and a sense of honour still matter, that loyalty counts, that friendships made in childhood can last for ever. And that all you need is imagination, a sense of adventure and a few simple things.

The Swallows, the four Walker siblings John, Susan, Titty and Roger, have bags of courage, imagination and a vivid sense of adventure – plus the loan of a sailing boat called the Swallow. The Amazons, feisty and fearless Nancy and Peggy Blackett, have a boat called the Amazon and an interesting uncle who lives on a houseboat on the lake.swallows2

The Walkers’ adventures begin after their naval officer father sends a marvellously cryptic telegram: “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown.” Mother (Saskia Portway) gives her permission and 12 year old John (brilliant Stuart Mcloughlin – and what a lovely singing voice he has) takes command. The mate, 11 year-old Susan (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate Bethan Nash, one of the recipients of this year’s Bristol Old Vic Peter O’Toole Prize) makes sure everyone has something to eat and that young Roger (the hilariously bearded but utterly convincing Tom Bennett) has enough clothes on when they go out in the boat at night. Able Seaman Titty (Jennifer Higham) may be a dreamer but she is fearless and not everything she saw at night was in her imagination!

As the Amazons, Evelyn Miller has huge fun with the richly scurrilous language of the older sister Nancy, while Millie Corser (the other 2014 Peter O’Toole Prize-winner) is often put upon but never totally quashed.

This adaptation of Swallows and Amazons was first staged at Bristol Old Vic four years ago and it returns, after a national tour and acclaimed London season, for Christmas 2014, much to the delight of those of us who loved it first time around, and thrillingly for those who missed it and can now see just how this much-loved adventure can be turned into a delightful, exciting, funny and often very touching stage show.

swallows3The sets are simple – just the steeply raked Bristol Old Vic stage, with skeleton sailing boats, black plastic shapes for the scary “Harpy” cormorants, round frames for the views through the Swallows’ telescope – and great performances from the six “children,” with all the adult roles and all the instruments played by six actors in flat caps and macs.

The music is by Neil Hannon who wrote a song, A Drop In The Ocean, for primary schools around the region to sing and record. The tapes were judged by Neil who chose St Peter’s from Portishead as the winners. They came on stage, at the start of the press night, to perform the song, impressing everyone with their red-shirted piratical costume and their energetic and disciplined singing. It was a great start to a wonderful evening.

A very jolly time was had by all.

Swallows and Amazons continues at Bristol Old Vic until 17th January.


Photographs by Simon Annand.

Posted in Reviews on .