Swallows and Amazons

29th February 2012

Warning: This feature is now out of date

It is the story which spawned a host of sequels and delighted generations of young children.

The nostalgic tale Swallows and Amazons is now poised to take to the stage at Norwich Theatre Royal from the same touring team as the smash-hit Goodnight Mr Tom. Emily Aspin caught up with the creative team and cast to find out more about the production set in an era when children thought of blackberries as fruit rather than a hi-tech gadget.

Arthur Ransome’s popular tales of childhood adventure have proved to be a big hit with generations of young people.

His uncanny knack of capturing the wonder and excitement of exploring new things and finding adventure in everything bring back memories of a much more innocent time.

And the book which started the whole series off is the latest production to visit Norwich Theatre Royal from the Children’s Touring Partnership – the body responsible for the hugely successful Goodnight Mr Tom tour which won critical acclaim when it came to the city.

An action-packed musical adventure, the production runs from March 13-17 recreating the idyllic era of endless summer evenings and the beauty of youthful imagination.

For director Tom Morris, best known for the hugely popular War Horse, there was no definite plan to turn the story into a musical and it just evolved out of discussions with Neil Hannon, who is best known for his work with band The Divine Comedy.

Tom recalled: âہ“For me, there’s not a reason why we do – or don’t do – a show. It is a mixture of luck, opportunism and unpredictable bursts of imagination – and I was having conversations with Neil about different things he might like to turn into a musical.â€Â

Neil Hannon

One day, Neil came up with the idea of a musical version of Swallows and Amazons which got a cautious welcome, âہ“I said ‘don’t be so silly’ It is a stupid idea,â€Â recalled Tom.

But it was something that Neil was very passionate about. He said: âہ“I bought Swallows and Amazons to read for my daughter. She was a bit young for it so I just read it and halfway through, a lightbulb flashed. The nugget of the story is fantastic.â€Â

So the hard work began with the pair working with Helen Edmundson, who penned the National Theatre’s astonishing Coram Boy. Gradually through a process of gradual writing and workshopping, the whole musical took shape. Neil said: âہ“For some areas where we wanted songs, I must have written three or four separate original songs one after the other until I got the right one.â€Â

And there is no doubt it was a project that ignited strong creative passions in all three of them. Director Tom said: âہ“The reason I wanted to make this show was that in the 1920s, there was a wonderful spirit of play. What the book captured and the adaptation captured is the way children make stuff up and the way they capture imaginative worlds for themselves and each other – and get lost in them.

âہ“If you ask why I would want to put such a show on, I think that sort of play is incredibly important to all of us. I think when anyone sees a child disappear under a table and turn it into a den or a house or a pirate ship, a bit of all of us wants to join in.â€Â

And it is that feeling of recapturing the inner child that was harnessed by Akyia Henry and fellow cast members. Akiya plays Titty, one of the four Walker children who is at the centre of the story. âہ“Out of them all, Titty is definitely the most intellectual. She loves to read and what I suppose you would call a geek these days,â€Â she said.

âہ“Titty loves to use her imagination and has a great sense of adventure. There is something quite fearless about her and she loves to be left to take care of things.â€Â

And she has also noticed the nostalgia of heading back to childhood among the cast – and the wonder among the audience who saw the production on a previous run for Bristol Old Vic theatre. âہ“This production allows adults to become children again. There is a piece of wood that will become a boat and everyone believes it is a boat. This production allows the child within you to go on this journey and once again become the child,â€Â she said.

So get ready to head back in time and enjoy a nostalgic adventure when the focus of young people was more imagination and adventure – and you craved blackberry and apple in a pie rather than as a brand of hi-tech mobile phone.

Edward Snape

Q&A with Executive Producer, Edward Snape 

With a whole host of West End theatre productions under his belt from- The 39 Steps to Roahl Dahl’s The Big Friendly Giant- Swallows and Amazons executive producer Edward Snape can turn his hand to almost anything. This former Taverham High School student has made it big time in the world of Musical Theatre as his dreams of producing were made into a reality. Emily Aspin catches up with Edward in London, as he talks about his entertainment days at Pontins, his love of the Norfolk Broads and how Norwich Theatre Royal’s arts courses nurtured his passion for Theatre.  

So you went to school in Norfolk, tell us about that.

I went to Town Close Preparatory and then I went to a state school called Taverham High School. When I started at Taverham it was only really just opening its doors, it was very progressive and especially good on drama.

Is theatre something you have always been interested in?

Yes, theatre was much more my kind of thing, I w
asn’t academic and I wasn’t a sportsman, so Taverham was great for me.

Were you ever interested in acting as a child?

No, I was always a bit of a businessman. I was even a children’s entertainer, not just at Pontins but at any children’s birthday and I made a small fortune. I would charge what then seemed like an enormous amount of money, twisted my parent’s arms to drop me at wherever I was supposed to be, whether it was a village hall or someone’s house, then I would do a magic show, collect cash and run back home! Yes it was precocious, it was outrageous, but no one stopped me, so I continued to do it.  Although I performed with magic I knew I wasn’t an actor. I was very inspired by Dick Condon who ran the Norwich Theatre Royal and loved what he did, he was a great impresario and it was perfect to learn what he was up to in terms of show business.

So tell me a bit about your performing experience in Norfolk

Well I did the arts course at Norwich Theatre Royal, Theatre Studies at Norwich City College, ran the Pavilion Theatre Cromer for Dick Condon for a summer season. I even became theatre manager and worked at Pontins holiday camp in Great Yarmouth. I did everything I could do and was probably seen in every village hall in Norfolk.

So what stands out to you as a turning point in your career?

It’s about making lots of mistakes and being precocious really. Today for producers there is a lot more support, there are even courses for producers and there was none of that when I started.  You literally had to raise money, put on a show and hope that you were solvent at the end of it. So it’s a scary, high-risk business.

What can you tell us about Fiery Angel?

Fiery Angel is my production company; it presents quite a lot of children’s work and is best known for producing things like, Peppa Pig and Lazy Town, the types of things that would turn up at Norwich Theatre Royal. The Children’s Touring Partnership is distinctly different as it’s a non-profit organisation and is funded by The Arts Council and its specific remit is to look after and nurture work for touring but particularly material for older children

This year Swallows and Amazons is all produced through the Children’s Touring Partnership; a partnership where all the theatres come together alongside are other producer the Chichester Festival Theatre. So it’s a different entity.

A theme running throughout the musical is the children’s love of boats and sailing, is that something you were particularly interested in as a child?

I wasn’t, but I am now, I was never particularly interested in the broads as a child, I remember some of my school friends were, but I wasn’t. Now with children myself, I’ve suddenly realised I’m really interested in sailing and I think I prefer sailing on the sea.  I have been sailing on the Norfolk broads, but I’d say for me the Norfolk broads is more about wildlife and conservation, rather than trundling up and down on a motor boat- it doesn’t quite race the pulse for me.

Swallows and Amazons

Norwich Theatre Royal

Tuesday 13- Saturday 17 March. Tuesday 13 at 7:00pm, Wednesday 14 at 1.30pm and 7:00pm, Thursday 15 at 1.30pm and 7:00pm, Friday at 7:00pm and Saturday 17 at  2.30pm and 7:00pm. 

BOX OFFICE 01603 630000.  For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

Arthur Ransome (1894-1967) wrote Swallows and Amazons in 1929 â€â€ the first of the series that made his reputation as one of the best English writers of children’s books. He lived in the Lake District, and much of Cumbria’s influence can be found in the first five books, but in 1932 he moved to Pin Mill on the River Orwell in Suffolk, and two of the series were based on this area, Harwich Harbour and the Walton Backwaters in Essex. (Two of the books were also based on the Norfolk Broads). Soon after the move to Suffolk, Ransome bought a seven-ton cutter and promptly renamed her Nancy Blackett, after one of the principle charcaters in the Swallows series. His experiences aboard Nancy prompted the writing of his next book, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, published in November 1937, a North Sea adventure featuring the four Walker children aboard Nancy (renamed Goblin in the story). Nancy Blackett still exists and is now owned and sailed by the Nancy Blackett Trust, based on the Orwell. www.nancyblackett.org