Swallows and Amazons sets sail into Norwich

As a new touring stage production of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons Tale sails into Norwich, IAN COLLINS looks at a saga of adventure where the author's own life was surely even stranger than his fiction. Plus: Neil Hannon Q&A.

When young actor Richard Holt inherited from his Sheringham grandparents the collected novels of Arthur Ransome, he was set fair for a most marvellous adventure.

The stage was almost set.

The dozen ripping yarns by the master of boating fantasies, recalled by so many of us in those beautiful editions from our land-locked childhoods, included of course in Coot Club, that great classic of the Norfolk Broads.

But the magic of this literary King Arthur is best known via the timeless watery and warring saga of the Lake District, Swallows and Amazons. And Richard is now cast as one of the Walkers — four children who turn sailors — in a dramatic stage version currently en route to Norwich.

Having wowed the National Theatre and the West End as a swashbuckling drama which invites children of all ages to visit their wildest imaginations, this production is now voyaging on a national tour.

Directed by Tom Harris, who previously helmed the all conquering stage adaptation of War Horse, and with music by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, the production is low on props but big on stimulating prompts and startling comic touches.

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It is a pantomime with sails on and by the end of it the audience is part of the crew (we need such spirited ball-throwing and boat-hauling interaction because the saga is rather long for little ones with short attention spans).

And it's fitting that Norwich Theatre Royal should be an early port of call because this is the latest venture involving Children's Touring Partnership and Fiery Angel Ltd led by Norfolk-raised Edward Snape.

Edward is now advancing with his Arts Council-backed mission to tour 'imaginative and bold theatre of the highest quality, with a particular emphasis on producing work nationwide for children aged eight years and above'.

In his youth he haunted the Theatre Royal as he grew up in the city after his family moved from London when his father – financial director in a major opera company – wanted out of the rat race.

In a sense he has been haunting it ever since. His production of Goodnight Mister Tom was a popular and critical triumph last year.

Swallows and Amazons appeared in 1930 and is a relic of an age which was both more innocent and yet, apparently, more callous and bloodthirsty.

With their mother distracted by their baby sister, the four Walker children, two boys and two girls, put to lake in a dinghy called Swallow and will camp out overnight. Since one of them is only seven and unable to swim, a modern mum in those circumstances would probably be put in clink.

She has already committed the capital offence of christening her elder daughter Titty (played in the new play with great verve by Akiya Henry). Don't titter at the name, as I said, it was a more innocent age.

They encounter Nancy and Peggy Blackett in their dinghy Amazon – both also themselves being Amazons or Apaches in the making. To me they are the delight of the book, and even more of the stage drama. Actresses Celia Adams and Sophie Walker revel in the roles.

These two sets of tearaway kids — the smallest of which is played on stage by outsized adult Stewart Wright — then vie to find out which party will lead their merged piratical band.

But while they are engaged in their war games the boat of the Blackett girls' Uncle Jim — aka Captain Flint — gets burgled and they get blamed.

In reality this dastardly crew is, of course, as good as gold and must ultimately be proved so. For this is the world of happy endings where none gets drowned. Uncle Jim/Captain Flint though he is forced to walk the plank for his lack of faith in the youngbloods.

There was a happy ending, too, for the author after an early life of even wilder adventures, the worst of which was probably the most appalling first marriage.

But this embodiment of English pastoralism no less than Sir Edward Elgar or Enid Blyton recovered with his second – to Trotsky's secretary. I kid you not, though you may need to continue suspending your disbelief.

He escaped from wife number one to Russia, in 1913, to study fairytales. Overtaken by the First World War he became Russian correspondent for the radical Daily News and an apologist for the Bolsheviks — comparing Lenin to Oliver Cromwell and making a friend of the incoming Soviet chief of propaganda, and a wife of — well, I've told you that bit.

He became nearly as notorious as P.G. Wodehouse for those later broadcasts in Nazi Germany, though he had an uncomfortable spell serving as both an MI6 agent and fiercely opposing Britain's intervention on behalf of the Tsarist White Russians who very nearly returned to power.

'Red Ransome' only narrowly avoided prosecution back in Britain under the Defence of the Realm Act, and since he never publicly recanted his views he remained on a blacklist of suspected communist agitators until 1937, when he wrote the much-loved We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea while living at Pin Mill in Suffolk.

But the couple mellowed as they matured and became the model of country conservatives – Evgenia Ransome replying to questions about her life before England that her father had been 'a very senior gardener to the Tsar'.

? Swallows and Amazons, Norwich Theatre Royal, March 13-17, �16.50-�5.50, 01603 630000; www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk www.swallowsamazons.co.uk


Where did the idea to create Swallows and Amazons into a musical come from?

Well I suppose the first thing was meeting Tom Morris [director], he came to my show at Somerset House in 1997 and he towered over me and said, you should write a musical, I said OK. Then I was reading Swallows to my daughter at bedtime and it was a long way into the book, when I thought 'Oh my God this is what we should do!' It's not really life and death but it is. I didn't want to do anything huge, adult or arty. I just wanted it to be fun for the family. Obviously you have to have interesting themes and reasons why you want the show to exist, or it's going to be a rubbish show and it doesn't mean it's going to be less entertaining for that. I always think entertaining first and telling people stuff second.

How have you really captured the essence of child play through the music that you've written?

I haven't captured the essence of child play, Tom, Helen and the actors on stage have. I have captured the essence of a good tune [laughs]. That all I can do, I'm not a dramatist. I have learnt so much through Tom during the making of this. When he told me they were all going to be adults, I looked at him as if he was crazy. Now I see it and I think, what was I thinking, this could never have been achieved through child actors. I think I was envisaging the film not the stage musical.

Do you think you'll do another musical?

I'd love to do another one, but its all about the story. If you don't find a good story, one that demands tunes, then there's no point in doing it and I haven't found one yet. I'm not sure if anyone wants me to do another one, so I'm waiting for someone to say: come on then where is number two?

As your first venture into musical theatre, how have you found writing music differs from what you've done before?

It's different because other people have the yes or no in whether the song gets to be in the show. I've developed a thick skin but it is a bit hard when you've spent the last three or four days writing a song and it gets rejected. There's no point writing a song that is completely superfluous to the requirements to the plot. There's this one song, the main song of the Amazon pirates, which I must have made about five different versions of. I was so pleased that Tom had said no to all the other ones, because the last one is obviously right.

Which song stands out to you as capturing the essence of the Swallows and Amazons story?

The main Swallow song, I just think the essence of the tune, the heroism, drama and sentimentality gives me a bit of a buzz.