Just as Christmas isn’t Christmas without a trip to the York Theatre Royal pantomime, a family outing to the annual Theatre Royal summer show has long been a fixture of the long holidays for us. After the success of last year’s spectacular adaptation of The Secret Garden comes Swallows & Amazons, a retelling of the classic Arthur Ransome tale and one with instant appeal to children. It didn’t take much persuading to get our three children (9, 7 and 4) to set sail with us on this particular summer adventure.
If you’re familiar with the book, or the recent (really rather good) film, you’ll know that the story revolves around the summertime antics of four siblings, John, Susan, Titty and Roger. Living in a world joyfully free of health and safety considerations – it is 1929, after all – they bid a brief farewell to their mother before setting sail across the lake in their boat, Swallow, to see where the wind takes them. No sooner have they set off than they encounter Nancy and Peggy, the hilarious and not-as-frightening-as-they-think-they-are Amazon pirates, and so the adventure begins. Like all children before and after them, they let their imaginations run riot and create drama from the little things: what is dastardly Captain Flint up to? Who are the charcoal-burners? Will they be able to beat the Amazons? And will Roger EVER learn to swim?
The audience must use their imagination for the pared-down set, too, with the lighting and simple design doing much of the work. But it’s the music that’s the star of the show, with the incredibly talented cast moving seamlessly from one instrument to the next, changing character and costume, before doing it all again. It’s seriously impressive (especially on what was one of the hottest days of the year) and it inspired our kids to dust off their much-neglected instruments the next day without being asked. A miracle.
The original music was composed by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, and it’s a perfect fit, effortlessly evoking summer days on the island and across the water. My favourite song was the one with the message that ‘It’s boring being bored’ and ‘let’s make the best of it’, mostly in the hope that my children will remember it when we’re a month into the holidays and they can’t think of anything to do. Much to my disappointment (but not surprise), their favourite song comes from the ballsy and brilliant Amazons warning the Swallows that they will chop off a leg ‘without any anaesthetic!’. Feisty pirates indeed, and the perfect contrast to the rather more sensible Swallows. When quizzed, our children all confirmed that they would much rather be Amazons than Swallows. No surprise there.
There’s a lot to love about this show. Unlike last year’s Secret Garden, there’s very little darkness or jeopardy, aside from a storm or two, which meant that our four-year-old enjoyed the whole thing without having to retreat under my arm at any point. She loved it from start to finish, and it kept her attention for the whole two hours. Our nine-year-old said he would have liked more pirate action – by which he probably means fighting – but he was full of praise for the actors and particularly enjoyed the more exuberant second half. But it was our seven-year-old who left the theatre buzzing with excitement, declaring ‘it was amazing’ to anyone who asked. Delightful, funny and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s a show that truly appeals to the whole family. Climb aboard!