Swallows and Amazons review – swashbuckling nostalgia set to divine tunes


Summer holidays are made for adventures. And Arthur Ransome’s tale of Lake District escapades, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, has the ingredients of all the best children’s adventure stories: vivid imaginations, space in which to roam, and a virtual absence of adults (or, as the Swallows dub them, barbarians).

Left to their own devices, the four Walker children set sail in their beloved boat Swallow, exploring the waters and islands of the nearby lake. It’s not long before they run into sisters Nancy and Peggy – the Amazons – and all-out war is declared between the young swashbucklers.



War, probably … William Pennington with the cast of Swallows and Amazons. Photograph: Anthony Robling

The York Theatre Royal’s take on this well-known story, directed by Damian Cruden and John R Wilkinson, is packed with charm. Adults playing children – so often an occasion for cringing – is pulled off by a uniformly excellent cast. Their travels take them all over Katie Sykes’s flexible set, which conjures both the magnificence of the landscape and the intensity of the children’s imaginations.

But the real highlight is the soundtrack, composed by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. Played on stage by the actors, the music is full of complex harmonies and playful rhymes, with lyrics that trigger snorts of laughter from the audience. In one particularly memorable example, “duckling takes to water” is startlingly paired with “mindless slaughter”.

In the stretches between songs, though, the storytelling can drag a little. At almost two and a half hours, this is a long show for its young target audience, testing attention spans. In some ways, for all the silliness, it feels as if it’s more for adults than for children – drenching big kids in nostalgia for those long, adventure-filled summer days.

At York Theatre Royal until 24 August.



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