Swallows and Amazons, back for a second time at the Bristol Old Vic, is quite simply charming. Highly reminiscent of the BBC’s adaptation of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, this is a show that takes one back to the England people fantasise of when purchasing ‘traditional, wooden’ Christmas decorations of rocking horses and flower fairies.
As with both Five Children and It and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia – the other children’s book which it strongly resembles – Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons tells the basic story of what happens when a set of siblings are let loose into the great outdoors. In that respect they are all slightly Freudian, with children on the cusp of adolescence delving into the dark woods and so on, but the only thing Christmassy about Sigmund Freud is his Santa-y beard, so let’s leave that stuff behind with Mother and Fat Vicky and get on with the adventure. The children’s journey across one of the lakes of the Lake District is beautifully depicted with suitably simply stage effects – fluttering streamers of ribbon represent the boat’s movement and a strip of canvas whistles the sound of the gathering wind.
The four Swallow children are our well-bred heroines and heroes, but as in other stories about precocious siblings, their ability to make incredibly sensible decisions at times edges towards the cringe-worthy. Susan, exactly like her namesake in Narnia, has that awful Older Sister Syndrome that makes the child her mother incarnate, meaning her kindness towards the younger children – feeding and warming them – is partially shrouded in a self-righteous and un-childlike caution. This makes the entrance of the Amazon sisters all the more welcome. And whilst you wonder if, in 2014, the message that working-class Northerners might be out to nick your boat and throw fireworks at their uncle, is a little misguided, ultimately it is the Amazon sisters who morally ‘win’ by getting Susan to let her hair down and act like a kid in a pillow fight during the final scene of the play.
Such chummy Englishness and nostalgia certainly has its place within the hearts of many people. There is, of course, no greater healer of the winter blues or tonsillitis than a long, slow blast of Helena Bonham Carter in A Room with a View or the glory of Granada’s Brideshead Revisited. However, one could be forgiven for asking ‘What exactly does it offer kids today?” As though we all know that the kids of today are another species, completely divorced from the idea of the Lake District unless the Lake District has a hashtag somehow linked to it (which it doesn’t because #Wordsworth is crap, obvs). To think that those wise little over-exposed owls nowadays would like a show with a character called Titty in it, does seem a bit unlikely.
Yet this is the second run of this production and when we went on a Thursday evening when the schools were still yet to break up and there was a good chance of rain, the auditorium was full of the little people who – as far as one could tell – were loving the old fashioned lobbing of fake coal at a pirate and beautiful wooden boats sailing through the audience. The success of Swallows and Amazons hints that sometimes entertainment is pretty simple, even in an age of Netflix on an iPhone. It also suggests that nostalgia isn’t stopping anytime soon. Just you wait, soon this audience will be graduating on to all the Austen adaptations and Downton Abbey and then on to who knows where. Maybe to the shop for a miniature rocking horse and some homemade mead.