A triumph of charm and imagination

Swallows & Amazons

The Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

****

IT IS amazing what you can achieve with a few bits of scrap wood, a cheap  rainbow coloured feather duster, a couple of bin bags and bags and bags of imagination.

And that is what children have, or at least should have if we allow them to be children, in abundance and they had no trouble lapping up this charming story of wars and pirates, robbers and killer birds.

The language and attitudes are a little dated from Arthur Ransome's time - the book came out in 1930 and was set in 1929 - and health and safety would be shredding their hi-viz jackets in an attack of the vapours at the thought of four children, the youngest seven and the eldest 13, sailing off alone to camp on an island in a lake in the Lake District, but those were more innocent times.

And to become immersed in them again is a joy, this is childhood as it should be full of adventures.

We have seen more and more expensive productions, with special effects costing more than a four bedroomed house; we can watch TV on our phones and today's  video games can be confused with reality; but  director Tom Morris, co-director of War Horse incidentally, manages a whole lake, a flock of giant cormorants, two sailing boats, a devastating storm, rowing boats and a pirate battle with what appears to be not much more than a tenner and a trip to B&Q – and we believed every second.

Theatre is make believe, only true and real in our imagination and the children packing the first night audience were afloat in the Lake District from the off.

Titty Walker, third eldest of the Walker children, played with easy confidence by Akiya Henry, and older sister Susan Walker, played with proper primness by Katie Moore, could perhaps pass as young girls from a distance.

OLDEST BROTHER

And Richard Holt, a little pompous, in strict 1929 style, as the family leader and oldest brother John had the gangly look of a teenager; but then we had Roger.

Roger, aged seven, played with a gay abandon by Stewart Wright, had the slight problem of being the largest of the four children and had a moustache and beard – but this is a show about imagination and the fact we had an adult, and a very obvious one at that, playing a child was all part of the fun. The kids adored him and every adult would like to join him in being a child again.

I am not quite so sure about the Amazons, Celia Adams as Nancy Blackett who had a penchant for disembowling people and boiling them in oil and sister Peggy played with equal enthusiasm for extreme forms of death and destruction. The pair were excellent but as a Lancastrian I am always wary of girls with Yorkshire accents who seem so enamoured with violence. It's a cultural thing.

For those who do not know the story the Walker children wave goodbye to mum, Hilary Tones, in their sailing boat Swallow and after a skirmish join forces with the Blackett's in their boat Amazon, to wage war on adults, the barbarians, and in particular the Blackett's uncle, writer James Turner, on his houseboat, or Captain Flint as he is in the childrens' imaginations. Along the way we have a crime which is solved by the children and everyone lives happily every after, or at least happily enough to engage in a final pirate battle.

Around it all are the musicians in their grey coats who are also stage hands, special effects, extra characters and no doubt sold ice creams in the interval.

CLEVER AND EFFECTIVE

Even as musicians they had to be versatile, playing enough instruments for an orchestra three times the size and, as well as playing, they had to provide the waves, (two blue ribbons), giant birds, (bin bags and scythes), rowing boats, (boards and castors), rocks (nether regions), parrot (feather duster and peg) and all the other scenes and props and it was all remarkably clever and effective from the tacking of Swallow to sailing in a storm.

One glorious moment is when Roger is sitting at the front of Swallow with a special effects musician flicking water in his face as the wind rises – and again when Roger finally swims without a foot on the floor.

The music and lyrics, incidentally, are by  Neil Hannon and they  add to an enjoyable evening providing running themes with an economic  script by Helen Edmundson

Cleverly, in a show which runs for almost two and a half hours, the cast start to engage the audience more and more until the final half hour becomes full audience participation, posh panto, finally ending with two large model boats, one Swallow, the other Amazon, sailing to the back of the stalls lifted aloft by the audience.

This is the second production by the Children's Touring Partnership, their first was the marvellous Goodnight Mr Tom, which was  at the Grand last year. The excellent set and costumes for that and for this  were by Robert Innes Hopkins.

To 28-04-12.

Roger Clarke

And from the stern . . .

****

THIS wonderful children's musical play, based on an Arthur Ransome book, has a spell-binding atmosphere that makes it equally enjoyable for adults.

So much clever work and imagination has gone into the staging of the story, directed by Tom Morris of War Horse fame, the audience are quickly caught up in the adventure of the sail-away Walker children (Swallows).

Even the fact that adults are in the roles of John, Susan, Titty and seven-year-old Roger - the latter played by Stewart Wright sporting a moustache and seven o'clock shadow - doesn't matter, and at times adds to the fun.

The props are fascinating....sinister flying cormorants with wings made of black bin-liners and garden shear beaks, a colourful parrot created by a colourful feather duster and secateurs, and rowing boats made from flat pieces of board on castors.

Captain John (Richard Holt), Titti (Akiya Henry), Susan (Katie Moore) and Roger set sail on another oddly crafted boat for Wildcat Isand where they encounter the Amazons (Blackett youngsters Nancy, Celia Adams, and Peggy, Sophie Waller), pirates, savages and other enemies.

And the remarkably inventive story ends with two model boats, containing tiny figures, 'sailing' through the stalls with the help of the audience which, on opening night included several hundred Brownies dressed as Swallows or Amazons.

Terrific contributions, too, from the on-stage musicians who do much more than play instruments in a delightful play which runs to 28.04.12.

Paul Marston

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