Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury until Saturday 18th February
Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere, March 4 and 5
Review by John Hargreaves
If high-level children’s play is imaginative, creative, problem-solving, risk-taking and deeply co-operative, the children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons stories sure knew how to do it. Much the same can be said for the cast and production team which have brought Winter Holiday to the stage for the first time.
This was the fourth in Ransome’s series of water-borne adventures, with the boats beached or trapped in ice. It was the author’s personal favourite and that of many of his readers (it has remained in print ever since 1933), including playwright Chris Eldon Lee.
His love for the story shines through in an adaptation which is accurate and respectful of the text, with some added visual and musical innovation which make it a most enjoyable theatrical entertainment.
The first half of the book, introducing Dick and Dorothea and developing the characters through a string of minor adventures, is kept moving with clever stagecraft entirely at one with the piece. We see the new friends learning to use Morse code, semaphore, and their own original signals to communicate between three bases. There is skating on an early-frozen tarn, ‘the dogs’ hauling a sledge over the low fells, the dramatic rescue of a sheep trapped on a cliff face.
And then Nancy gets the mumps: “The best thing that could have happened!” It means quarantine for a month, no return to school, and time for the whole of Lake Windermere to freeze, which it does.
Here the big adventure begins – a long-planned expedition, over the ice like Nansen, to the north pole. High drama comes via a glitch in communications and a blizzard, splitting the expedition into three groups and introducing real danger. It comes to life on stage with chilling realisations, an exhilarating chase, and a satisfyingly warm conclusion.
Described as an ‘age-blind’ production, the adult cast do well in exploiting their inner child and inviting the audience to do likewise. Dawn Lake as Peggy and Sally Tonge as her firebrand sister Nancy pull this off thoroughly as the stroppy, rebellious, sometime pirate Amazons with attitude (“You capsized? Oh, you lucky things!”). So too does Tom Walton as Dick, the budding astronomer and general science obsessive who fidgets incessantly and is delightfully awkward throughout his numerous heroic moments.
The other half of ‘The D’s’ — Dick’s sister Dorothea, played by Jo Cox – is the imaginative storyteller, taking over some of the later narration begun by Tim Baker playing Arthur Ransome himself.
Among the Swallows, Mark Smith’s Roger ably provides humour as the youngest and hungriest member of the various adventures. John has all the enthusiasm of an all-round jolly good egg (“’Trespassers Will Be Hanged’ – I say, that’s a bit stiff”) but as the oldest he carries responsibility on his shoulders too. This is movingly addressed by Ben Seager in a fine song ‘It’s Lonely on the Ice’ by Hannah Williams and Chris Eldon Lee.
Sophisticated is not a word any of Ransome’s characters would have time for, and nor does this play. The nearest it comes, perhaps, is in the use of very effective projections on the rear of the set, but even here Eldon Lee uses many of Ransome’s naïve drawings and maps, or backdrops created in his style. They work a treat.
Together with period costumes – duffle coats, Argyll stockings and knickerbocker pants, and loads of woolly hats – the team has re-created a rural, 1930’s children’s idyll. It’s both snug and wildly adventurous. And naturally playful.