Swallows and Amazons (Keswick)

Stephen Longstaffe is entranced by this modern take on ”Swallows and Amazons” at The Theatre by the Lake

Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons may be a classic, but it is an eighty-year old classic. How can a story involving such a lot of nicely mannered children sailing on a lake be brought to life on the contemporary stage?

Swallows and Amazons at The Theatre by the Lake
Swallows and Amazons at The Theatre by the Lake
© Keith Pattison

Stefan Escreet's solution is to bypass the sometimes dated manners and expectations of the late 1920s and take us directly into the everlasting present of children’s imaginations. His direction works, although the show starts slowly, with one of the children as an old lady remembering her youth, some wistful songs written by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and the Swallows, four rather well-behaved children (Joel Sams, Nadia Morgan, Frances Marshall and – playing a seven-year old – a bearded James Hogg).

Thankfully the Amazons (an energetic Caroline Hallam and Rosalind Steele) arrive to transport us into the world of pirates, buried treasure, and night-time derring-do which will form the rest of the play. This is a show all about what your imagination can make of the mundane world. The Lake District skies are suggested by a beautifully evocative series of cycloramas, juxtaposed against designer Martin Johns’ magnificently ramshackle two-level set, seemingly glued together from the contents of a junkyard and an attic, many elements of which are picked up and used during the show.

Garden shears and an umbrella canopy become a cormorant, a duster and some rubber gloves a parrot. A fat baby is constructed out of variously-sized hot water bottles. The children’s sailing ships are a wardrobe on its back and a table turned upside down and scooted across the stage. Two charcoal burners the children meet are puppet hoodies sitting in the laps of their operators.

As well as playing with these props (for which we have to thank ‘animateur’ Natasha Holmes) the cast also sing and perform the music. The ‘adults’ (Martin Fisher, Graham Lappin, and Heather Phoenix) join in with gusto, playing much of the music onstage as the ‘younger’ characters have their adventures.

The result is, in the truest sense, a playful as well as a lively production, making imaginative use of the stage and employing the actors’ various talents to the full.

Swallows and Amazons is at the Theatre by the Lake until 18 January, 2014.

– Stephen Longstaffe