The Silver Sword

Ian Serrailler adapted by Susie McKenna and Steven Eddis
Sell A Door Theatre Company Belgrade Theatre Coventry
The Nuffield Theatre Southampton

Tom Mackley as Jan Credit: Robert Day
The Ensemble Credit: Nicola Young
The Family Credit: Robert Day

With the current refugee crises displacing millions of people, Ian Serraillier’s 1956 novel The Silver Sword is apposite as it explored similar themes as a group of children valiantly cross war-torn Europe after the horrors of WWII in search of their parents.

In Susie McKenna’s vibrant adaption with evocative music by Steven Edis, we first meet the multi-talented company of actor musicians who address the audience directly and introduce themselves as storytellers in the song “Teller of the Tales”.

This heart-rending story transports us to Warsaw where we meet the Balicki family. The father Joseph, impressively played by Julian Harries, has to escape the Nazi occupation. He becomes separated from his wife Margarit (Sue Appleby) and his three children and is desperate to find them.

Whilst searching his ruined, bombed-out house, he discovers a paper knife—the Silver Sword of the title—and has faith that his children are still alive.

He agrees that the street-wise orphan Jan, a superb, energetic, petulant performance from Tom Mackley, can have the sword but only if he tries to find his children. It becomes his good luck talisman.

Rachel Flynn embraces the character of the sensible, sensitive, caring teenager Ruth with gusto and is determined to keep the family together as they journey to find their father in Switzerland.

Her brother Edek (Oliver Buckner) is captured by the Nazis for smuggling illicit bread and cheese to the town. He is imprisoned where he develops TB and is lost to the family for years.

The youngest child, played on the night I saw it by Lily Bacon Darwin, perfectly captures the innocence and wonder of Bronia as she creates simplistic, childish drawings that are projected on a large screen at the back of the stage.

These projections and animations, including black and white original photographs and video clips, firmly place the location and time and help to move the action on with Lotte Collett’s multi-level, simple set design.

The large, excellent ensemble are versatile performers and their musicianship playing a variety of instruments and characters is superb.

Nathan Turner plays various army soldiers with appropriate accents from a friendly Russian Ivan to a compassionate American GI who successfully gets the family to Basle in sight of the Swizz Alps.

Lucy Tregear and John O’Mahony, amongst other roles, are the kindly farmers who hide the children before they are secretly sent off on their periously journey.

They are desperate to avoid being found by the Burgemeister who declares, “we can’t have migrants wandering all over Europe.” The echoes for today are obvious.

The emotive music is a fusion of styles from Polish folk songs, rousing chorus numbers and a delightful pastiche of a Noël Coward number when Major Hargreaves (Alexander Knox), through letters to his wife Jane, sings about his experiences including a chimp escaping from the zoo.

Less successful is the song about “soldiers who plunder”, perhaps included to lighten the mood?

There are some loveable puppets created by Scott Brooker from a cantankerous cockerel to a loveable dog, Ludwig.

The emotional ending brought many a tear to the audience including this reviewer and reminded us of the plight that faces refugees today.

Reviewer: Robin Strapp