Adult actors playing children is not a new device but it adds an interesting layer to this production of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, a story much-loved for its uncomplicated evocation of those seemingly endless childhood summers where the only limitations are those of the imagination.
There’s a danger it could be a distraction and add a level of archness so pleasingly missing from the book and film adaptation but as soon as the bearded hulk Stewart Wright proclaims his details for the ship’s log, “Roger Walker, nearly 8” there is never any doubt he is who he says he is, so completely do the cast embody their juvenile characters.
Naturally the younger audience members don’t give the casting a second thought and for the adults it serves as a gentle, yet powerful, reminder of how far we have (or have not) come from our own 7 year old selves who once innocently built forts and castles in our bedrooms.
Strangely, perhaps the greatest distraction is the stunning level of invention continually on display in every corner of the stage. It’s a very busy production. The ensemble, which trebles up as orchestra and stagehands, constantly buzz around the stage, bringing the island world to life around the principals. In matching flat caps and work-coats they fly the birds, swell the tides and whip up the storms. So mesmerising is their work that the story does occasionally get lost in the middle of all this business.
The music of Neil Hannon, a brilliant writer of wistful and narrative-driven songs, is a perfect fit and Helen Edmundson’s script remains faithful to the source material, resisting the temptation of updating for a savvy modern audience.
An exuberant, if slightly hectic, production which is determined to tease out the adventurer in all of us.
Swallows and Amazons continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 24 March and then tours nationally, including the Lyceum, Sheffield, until May 2012.