Swallows and Amazons

Arthur Ransome, adapted by Helen Edmundson, songs by Neil Hannon
Grand Theatre, Blackpool

Swallows and Amazons

If you’re old enough to remember when penknives were a reward rather than a deadly weapon, or when children declaring they were bored was very nearly a hanging offence, then you have probably already read Arthur Ransome’s children’s novel—and adopted it as your template for life.

‘If duffers; will drown’ was the terse advice offered to the four children who set sail on his Lakeland adventure story that blends Indians, pirates and buried treasure into a wholesome yarn that celebrates courage, honesty, loyalty and friendship.

Nowadays such a cavalier approach to child-rearing would invoke a social workers’ case conference, or at the very least a visit from the health and safety inspectorate.

Above all else though Swallows and Amazons rejoices in the purity of childhood imagination and it is a theme picked up solidly by this enchanting production.

Since it’s created by the Children’s Touring Partnership, in association with the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic, it’s piled high with stagecraft and reveals all sorts of theatre tricks to its school-age target market.

So a wind machine and lightning sheet are prominent; half the cast act as scene-shifting janitors, or on-stage band members; and dozens of minimalist stage effects never fail to surprise and delight.

Helen Edmundson’s script and Neil Hannon’s music and witty lyrics propel the story along at a reasonably brisk pace, though the exposition of a dream sequence, and the subsequent unravelling of the story’s mystery, demand that youthful audiences need some prior knowledge of the plot.

But along the merry way they’ll also pick up navigation skills, the science of charcoal manufacture, and lessons in anger management or deferred gratification, thanks to an author who wrapped up a ripping yarn inside a self-improvement manual.

This is a play, on stage and in its programme, which underlines the vital necessity for children to learn through play.

Set sail before Saturday.

Reviewer: David Upton

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