The Playhouse’s spring season really has swung one way and the other, from humid tragedy to adult farce and then children’s musical. Next up we’re off to medieval England but for the rest of the week the National Theatre’s Swallows and Amazons is taking over the grand old theatre.
Children’s literature is unfairly maligned or rather patronised in some circles but really there’s no reason why a Henry V is anymore worthy that Arthur Ransome’s scout’s-own runabout.
This new production, with music from Neil Hannon, is joyous, innocent and thoroughly charming. There is no side, no breaking of the fourth wall and no wink-wink naughtiness for the adults. That might initially dismay some who’ve taken their kids, but there were smiling faces everywhere by the end. This isn’t a PG, it’s a U production all the way and classic family fare.
Quite what the rock’n’roll panto would make of a character called Titty is probably best left to the imagination – but the straight bat played by the talented cast was refreshing.
Stewart Wright supplies the designated comic relief, aptly for the tallest cast member who happens to be playing the youngest character – but all of the cast have their moments to be amusing and break out into song, the diminutive Anyika Henry as Titty more than most.
The inventiveness in terms of set and props and the way they’re used is winning too, a parrot represented by a multicoloured feather duster and pair of pliers sticking in the mind; the way the Swallow’s voyages are brought to life is also good, the audience needing to work a little to go along with it, but rewarded with amusing and witty set pieces.
The second half kicks things on again, with Titty’s dream sequence particularly good and some ‘what-the-heck’ fun towards the climax that the kids in the audience loved. There is something interesting, beyond all the jolly hockey sticks and buttered eggs though; something important about childhood, adventure, honour and nobility. Again, it’s presented totally at face value – a script that’s as straightforward, as earnest, but as oddly winning as its players.
It would have been easy to go into Swallows and Amazons questioning the timing of such a gauche, ingenuous production and it could have gone wrong, but skillful direction and performances mean that Swallows and Amazons is a delight not despite its innocence and lack of side, but because of it.
Swallows and Amazons
Until Saturday 31 March
Pic: Simon Annand