'Swallows and Amazons' - The Children’s Touring Partnership
Cambridge Arts Theatre
In Arthur Ransome’s 1930 novel Swallows and Amazons, the four Walker children (the youngest just seven years old), sail to a Lake District island and camp there alone. They are given a freedom from adult surveillance which is almost inconceivable today, together with the serious responsibilities of cooking for themselves and not drowning. Ransome lists a great many things – kettles, tins of biscuits, homemade tents, halyards and cleats – with an unconcealed appreciation of the simple and shipshape. This production, directed by Tom Morris, reflects the atmosphere of the novel: simple, well-constructed elements are deployed precisely, firing the imagination.
The songs by Neil Hannon display the lovely wit and wordplay of his songwriting as The Divine Comedy, with a deceptive simplicity that suggests the children might have come up with the tunes themselves. The onstage musicians in their blue overalls and caps could be a team of craftsmen from a boatyard. They support the actors with music, puppetry, and sound effects – all created before our eyes. When Titty kneels to start a campfire, three musicians gather by her, clicking fingers and clapping to create the sound of a crackling fire. It works wonderfully, and yet the stage picture feels rather cluttered. There is often too much going on: sometimes the actors strain to communicate; sometimes I missed the import of what was said, distracted by a clever thing happening elsewhere.
Although the four Walker children are thoughtfully characterised, there is a period starchiness to them at first. This is relieved when they get into their boat, and then blown away by the eruption of Nancy and Peggy Blackett in war paint and feather headdresses, singing the boisterous ‘Song of the Amazons’. These girls are local, and slightly older than the Walkers. They sing with the voices of (young) adult women, and are clearly play-acting, a good counter to the more subdued style of the Swallows.
If you know the novel, you can navigate around the plot, and enjoy the way the script by Helen Edmundson retains the details of the children’s rich fantasy world as they draw on Robinson Crusoe and other narratives of explorers to name island, lake and village. If you don’t know the novel, it is hard to work out where the action is taking place, particularly on one dangerous night spent out on the water. But the necessarily compressed plot doesn’t seem to trouble the audience. The focus is instead on the characters’ journeys. Each child has a moment – Roger learns to swim, diving into a sea of supportive arms; John comes to a new understanding of adult responsibility; imaginative Titty is recognised by a kindred spirit and presented with a (feather duster) parrot.
Photo: Simon Annand