“Crikey!” That old-fashioned expression of astonishment doesn’t just pop up in Helen Edmundson’s perky script for “Swallows and Amazons”; it also sums up the delighted surprise that tangibly spreads through family audiences for this captivating production based on the beloved British children’s novel about the power of childhood imagination. A highly successful original run at regional theater Bristol Old Vic last Christmas brought the show to the West End for this five-week season. Following a four-month U.K. tour, its hugely appealing good humor and heart deserve a return engagement at the very least.
The innocent adventures of a group of preteen children sailing in dinghies in the Lake District in 1929 is not obvious stage material. But the production is the brainchild of helmer Tom Morris, co-director of “War Horse,” and he’s once again joined by movement director Toby Sedgwick. Their new show doesn’t try for the same emotional punch, but it packs heartwarming charm by the boatload.
The Swallows are the four young, nicely brought up Walker children: John (Richard Holt), Titty (Akiya Henry), Susan (Katie Moore) and 7-year-old Roger (hefty, comically earnest, 30-year-old Stewart Wright), who spend a summer holiday boating on a lake not too far away from their middle-class mother. But in their buoyant imaginations they’re pirates at sea, a mood boosted when they chance upon sisters Nancy (Celia Adams) and Peggy Blackett (Sophie Waller), self-styled dastardly pirates who call themselves Amazons.
Mimicking the way the children use fantasy to dramatize their escapades, the production style similarly galvanizes the audience’s imagination to hugely impressive effect. All stagecraft and special effects are visible; actors whirl the handle of a traditional wind machine to create the all-important gusts for the sails, and when the children look down a telescope, a stagehand holds up a circular wooden frame to indicate what is being watched.
This “rough theater” representation is evident in every element of Robert Innes Hopkins’ wittily sophisticated, non-literal design. Hold a pair of curved-bladed garden pruners against a brightly colored feather duster and, hey presto, it’s a parrot. A seated actor holding a V-shaped wooden rail is instantly at the prow of a sailing boat.
Aiding the production’s highly convincing theatrical world are the quirky, poignant songs by debuting theater composer Neil Hannon, best known as creator of cult pop outfit the Divine Comedy. In Sam Kenyon’s flavorsome orchestrations for onstage cellos, violin, piano, woodwind and tuned percussion including large marimba, Hannon’s songs outline character and allow situations to develop, his smart grip on contrasting rhythms creating alternatively reflective and pungent moods.
When not playing adult characters moving in and out of the story, the hard-working band members pass props, shift scenes and even catch flying thesps as they dive into the sea. In contrast with most actor-musician productions, however, the drama is not compromised by having the principals handle musical instruments. Unencumbered, they can use their bodies to far more expressive effect, which means high-stakes drama can be achieved whenever necessary. Thus, a nighttime storm attains an edge of real fear as Henry’s beautifully judged Titty goes from stalwart-tomboy resolution to tremulous uncertainty. Similarly, when Holt’s nicely serious Roger is called a liar, his distress at the accusation fills the auditorium.
Scenes like these illustrate the defining element of Morris’ production. Instead of satirizing the story’s naivete, an obvious trap for this kind of material, the cast plays the emotions of Edmundson’s adaptation for real. The abundant comedy that results achieves such a level of goodwill that adult audience members will readily join in the joyous finale and pelt the enemy with foam cannonballs.