Photographs: 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”.
So much is charming about this stage version that to pick holes in it feels like being a spoilsport… the songs, by Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, are liltingly lovely, the lyrics spiked with his trademark tart wit. And this production, co-directed by Damian Cruden, York’s departing artistic director, and John R Wilkinson, shimmers with innocent wonderment and the happy holiday glow of long childhood summers.
The performances, though, are winning, with Khogali wistful and vigorous as Titty and Anne-Marie Piazza and Rachel Hammond as the bloodthirsty piratical sisters making a hugely entertaining and robustly earthy contrast to the more decorously behaved Walkers. You can’t help wishing there were rather more to it, but it’s as warm, sweet and soothing as a bedtime cup of cocoa.
There’s something endearingly old-fashioned about this tale of children playing at being pirates. Yet Edmundson’s version still manages to feel contemporary, helped no end by a typically witty and winsome score by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon.
A cast of adult actors play the children’s roles in a production that is, first and foremost, a celebration of childhood and the power of imagination.
It’s Anne-Marie Piazza and Rachel Hammond who prove most popular with the young audience as the “Amazon pirates”, complete with one of Hannon’s catchiest songs as their theme tune.
Performed by Cruden and Wilkinson’s company of nine actor-musicians on myriad instruments, from euphonium to violin to cello and glockenspiel, under Kieran Buckeridge’s typically joyous musical direction from the keyboards, the mellifluous songs are but one pleasure of this summer holiday drama for children and grown-up children alike.
The Amazons, sisters Nancy and Peggy (Anne-Marie Piazza and Rachel Hammond), are punkish northerners, free spirited, rougher, tougher and funny. The contrast works a treat; all excel, not least when improvising sailing boats.
The show aims to take you back to your summer holidays, and provides lots of enchanting music too!
The musical expertise of the company is outstanding… Anne-Marie Piazza (Nancy, Captain of the Amazon) is much loud and brash, with a wonderful singing voice to match! The musical skill is to be not only enjoyed, but admired also.
Furthermore, it is the musical instruments which dominate the stage and its design.
The musical aspects are certainly the highpoint of the production, and it’s no surprise that the songs were composed by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon.
John R Wilkinson and musical director Kieran Buckeridge refer to gig theatre and concept albums in their programme notes—and they’re by no means overselling this aspect of the show. Neil Hannon’s compositions, in Buckeridge’s fine arrangements, underpin the whole evening, performed with immense flair by the whole cast on a bewildering array of instruments.
The resulting songs are intricate and compelling, with counterpoint, harmony and syncopated rhythms constantly offering surprising and delightful twists.
…The cast members all have beautiful, versatile voices which soar through some very demanding arrangements.
….The Amazons, played by Anne-Marie Piazza and Rachel Hammond, at times threaten to steal the show entirely. As the pseudo-enemies of the piece, they certainly get the best songs: they revel in hyperbolic and bloodthirstily comic couplets such as “We’ll cut out your gizzards with a blunt pair of scissors for starters / Use your skull as a cup and your lily-livered guts for garters”.
…Overall there is so much to love about the performances, the staging and the gorgeous music that it is well worth a visit, for imaginative explorers young and old.
(British Theatre Guide)
The incredibly skilled cast of actor-musicians is completed by Anne-Marie Piazza as Nancy, Rachel Hammond as Peggy, Ellen Chivers as Mother and Ed Thorpe as Mr Jackson and Policeman, not to mention Buckeridge himself as the ostensibly intimidating Uncle Jim (better known as Captain Flint)….Piazza and Hammond provide riotous laughter as the bloodthirsty Amazons,
Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s novel Swallows & Amazons comes to the stage of York Theatre Royal this summer. Five of the cast – Anne-Marie Piazza, Alex Winfield, Ellen Chivers, Kiernan Buckeridge, William Pennington and Laura Soper – answer questions about sailing, adventurous holidays and what their character is really like (York Times)
A taste of adventure, childhood innocence and endless days spent
The cast of nine, played instruments, sang and of course acted. The Amazon Pirates, who are the Swallows arch enemy, at least at the start, are two sisters, Nancy (Anne-Marie Piazza) and Peggy (Rachel Hammond). Both do a great job of creating their persona as ruthless ‘pirates’. These two provided the audience with a lot of the comic element within their roles.
The whole cast were strong and each actor made sure the performance went smoothly as possible. The interaction between all the cast is wonderful, and the six who played the children were 100% believable.… I could not find fault in any of the actors, they all delivered splendidly, with such talent.
… I loved how the cast played instruments, sung and acted too, it kept things lively and made sure the children in the audience didn’t get too bored. The show also used a few bird puppets, with the cast stepping in to control the birds at different times.
(Fairy Powered Productions)
The Amazons, Nancy and Peggy, are more straightforward. They make their first raucous appearance, clambering from the Dress Circle in full fig as pirates, and from then on Anne-Marie Piazza and Rachel Hammond have a great time roistering around in fine panto style.
There are many incidental delights in Swallows and Amazons, not least the puppets of birds, but the outstanding feature of the production is the quality of the music. Neil Hannon’s songs are cleverly varied, sometimes witty, sometimes memorable, but always smartly integrated into the dialogue.
(The Review Hub)
Performed by a supremely talented ensemble, who are also the house band and skilled puppeteers, the intimate staging means the audience also feels part of their gang and had they handed us one of their catapults we’d have probably taken on Captain Flint ourselves.
What an absolute delight York Theatre Royal’s summer show, Swallows and Amazons was, an action-packed adventure, and a fitting farewell to Artistic Director Damien Cruden who co-directed this, his last production with John R Wilkinson, after being at the helm for 22 years.
The children (all played most convincingly by adults) took us with them on their adventures all over designer Katie Sykes’ beautifully spacious set, which created a mood that captured the memory of childhood holidays, and a heady sense of freedom.
The playfulness of the bobbing boats, and the naughty bird puppets was a joy to experience, as was the enthusiasm of the children, particularly young Roger (William Pennington) whose character you couldn’t help but take to your heart.
Music Director Kieran Buckeridge, along with his crew, ensured that this quality production was like “a wonderful live gig“ demonstrating actor-musicianship at its very best, and no doubt inspiring young audience members to take up an instrument.
The swash-buckling scene involving Swallows and Amazons and amongst other things, a hilarious cushion fight, was a real highlight, summing up the sense of playfulness created throughout the whole show.
A delightfully imaginative, uplifting production, perfect for a family treat in the summer holidays
Much to my disappointment (but not surprise), their favourite song comes from the ballsy and brilliant Amazons warning the Swallows that they will chop off a leg ‘without any anaesthetic!’. Feisty pirates indeed, and the perfect contrast to the rather more sensible Swallows. When quizzed, our children all confirmed that they would much rather be Amazons than Swallows. No surprise there.
… Our nine-year-old said he would have liked more pirate action – by which he probably means fighting – but he was full of praise for the actors and particularly enjoyed the more exuberant second half. But it was our seven-year-old who left the theatre buzzing with excitement, declaring ‘it was amazing’ to anyone who asked. Delightful, funny and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s a show that truly appeals to the whole family. Climb aboard!
Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy fame composed the music and from the very first scene, it’s clear that the story will be told not only through the acting skills of the fine cast, but also through song and their musicianship. There is at least one musician on stage at all times, often several more, with all of the cast demonstrating an array of fine talents on any number of instruments.
..This is very much an interactive play, with the cast entertaining the children beforehand and popping up at various points in and around the audience, and looks set to win over the hearts and minds of a whole new generation over the next few weeks in York.
The soundtrack though, which is nothing short of wonderful, only complements the sheer talent and energy of the actor-musicians carrying out his, Cruden and co-director John R. Wilkinson’s vision for the show. The tracks are playful, fun and rather than detract from the show, really add value to the performance. A few recent York Theatre productions have felt musically forced, rather Swallows and Amazons thrives under it’s musical direction.
The nine actor-musicians are flawless across a range of instruments and musical styles;
I loved this rendition of a classic tale; whilst the story and the script hasn’t been updated to reflect the modern day, it was actually rather nice to have that escape to the past and into a traditional theatre-scape for a couple of hours. The closeness and the intimate nature of the staging enforced this further and you really do feel a part of the children’s adventure throughout.
(Halfway 2 Nowhere)
The cast play the children beautifully, with wide-eyed innocence yet without the need for stereotypes and silliness. The direction from Damian Cruden and John R. Wilkinson shines here.
Anne-Marie Piazza and Rachel Hammond as Peggy play the great comedy duo Nancy and Peggy, drawing plenty of giggles from the audience with their bolshy fall-outs.
The play is a delightful one, though the music composed by Neil Hannon could do without so many reprises.
(One Play More)
There was a powerful use of instruments throughout. The music added to the performance and was blended perfectly. The casts ability to include the instruments was spellbinding to watch.
The use of space in the theatre was phenomenal. The stage and beyond was used throughout which captivated my ten year old and me! These times when the actors came off of the stage often unexpectedly were our favourite parts.
We loved the Amazon sisters, Nancy and Peggy. They were strong and determined northern sisters not afraid to fight for what they believe in.
(Unicorn Puffs and Rainbows)