Swallows and Amazons at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Simon Annand, with thanks
Photo by Simon Annand, with thanks

You can rely on Bristol Old Vic to pull out a Christmas show that gives little mention of Christmas – The Little Mermaid in 2013, Peter Pan in 2012 and Coram Boy in 2011. This year, with Swallows and Amazons, the team revisits a production first performed at the theatre during Christmas 2010.

I didn’t see it then and, though I remember enjoying the film as a child, all I really recall are boats. So this was a blank canvas for my 8 year old and me – no expectations (apart from excitement of being at the Old Vic for a Christmas show! In THAT theatre!).

Director Tom Morris introduces the show, noting that some important people are missing and then bigging up St Peters CoE Primary School from Portishead, when row upon row of children line the stage to sing a one-off performance of their winning entry to BOV’s School Choir of the Year award. Bravo!

And we’re off to a flying start, as these local children take their seats to enjoy this lovely, really lovely, show with us.

Set and written in the last year of the 1920’s, Arthur Ransome’s story is one about childhood dreams of adventure. Now, I wouldn’t have wanted my healthy, always warm and well-fed child to have had to grow up during those dismal inter-war years of depression but it must be noted that, in 2014, never would we let our young people take off for days on end in a boat in order to camp on a small island without an adult in sight, as they do in Ransome’s summer of ’29. We are very good at bemoaning the present and idealising the past but, honestly, I know which era I’d rather live in.

But let’s enjoy the fantasy because it really is done beautifully here.

The set is minimalist, allowing the deceptively small cast of twelve to roam their space; they are constantly moving, exploring, using every part of the stage as if it were, indeed, a mysterious place of infantile possibilities.

The Walker Children are played by adults, each one believable in his or her role: Stuart Mcloughlin, as 12 year old John, is the gangly ‘Captain’, so obviously on a road trip here as he tries to do what’s best for his siblings, not always getting it quite right; Bethan Nash plays Susan, First Mate (aged 11), with a sweet, blossoming maturity and an eagerness to do the right thing; Jennifer Higham is the funnest person you may ever meet in her role as the effervescent 9 year old Titty and what’s there to say about Tom Bennett’s Roger? Comedy! An almost 8 year old with a beard, Bennett gets a great deal of laughs throughout the show as he flits between that inquisitive little boy and a mature, wise man (he was my girl’s absolute favourite, while I thought Titty was, in the parlance of the day, simply marvellous). Each and every member of that family plays the age of their given child almost to perfection.

And then there are the Amazon pirate girls: full of wildness and enviable energy. Millie Corser and Evelyn Miller are delightful as the local kids who have been stomping this ground all summer, making the most of time without an uncle who is too busy to pay them attention. Constantly playful, they invent scenarios, surveying the waters from their own boat. It is their island. Who are these interlopers? This must mean war!

And so is told a tale of innocence, growth and friendship. As the kids learn to depend on one another, we, the audience, are very aware of the help they get along the way. There are no barbarians (aka adults) on Wild Cat Island but the place doesn’t belong to the younger generation entirely. Pirate hats off to Toby Sedgwick, Director of Movement, because the ‘Players in Blue’ are the cement of this production, playing the parts of those grown-ups on the mainland or at sea, whilst moving around props, becoming a telescope, acting as the sea itself, diving on the floor to spit out waves, breathing life into the stage and forming a small but perfectly formed orchestra.

Because, ah, the music! Composed by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, the music is such an important part of Swallows and Amazons. So many songs that will leave you humming all the way home, his lyrics informative, helping to express the cast’s emotion at each turn, at times sad and at others joyful.

The whole package is a fun-filled family adventure, the kind that Bristol Old Vic does remarkably well. Swallows and Amazons is guaranteed to give you a warm glow on a cold December evening.

Swallows and Amazons is at Bristol Old Vic until 17th January 2015

– Review by Becky Condron

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