Swallows and Amazons is Bristol Old Vic’s new musical for Christmas, directed by Tom Morris and with music by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. Assistant Director Miranda Cromwell and Akiya Henry, who plays Titty Walker, talk about the show, the rehearsal process and how the cast have engaged with the children’s favourite pastimes: playing and sailing.
How would you describe the show to someone who hasn’t read Swallows and Amazons?
Akiya: Four children go on an amazing swashbuckling adventure in the Lake District.
Miranda: A Do-It-Yourself musical about imagination. It’s about remembering what it’s like to play, and it’s all about family.
What do you think people will find exciting about the play?
Akiya: I’m slightly biased, but I think they’ll find everything exciting! The music and the story take you through an amazing emotional journey, and the puppetry is phenomenal. People can really connect with the rites of passage, great friendships and sibling rivalries; family, adventure, excitement. Parents will take a lot away from it because it’s about allowing children to have the freedom to explore.
How does the script deal with adapting the book?
Miranda: The script has taken the best bits of the book. It tells the story really economically, without it seeming rushed. It feels very fragile and beautiful, even though in some ways it’s so robust and ridiculous. It is a big musical, but it comes from the characters; every line in the music tells part of the story.
Tell us a bit about how the rehearsal process
Miranda: The process involved a lot of music. Lots of people learning instruments that they’ve never played before, switching instruments halfway through songs, speaking their lines whilst playing incredibly complicated things. We rehearsed music in the mornings, and then in the afternoons we talked through scenes around the table; discussing characters and their objectives and actions, how everyone is feeling in each scene, and how the previous scene has affected them.
How did the idea of ‘play’ influence the process?
Akiya: It’s all been about play really. Our rehearsal space was a safe place, a haven where we could explore and play, and our warm-ups were all about games.
Miranda: To stay so focussed on imagining something, and believe that it’s there, even though it’s within the rules of the game, is still incredibly truthful and challenging. Everything is played with really high stakes, but it’s still played, and things can be very throwaway. It’s been really interesting, looking at how the actors have started to work as an ensemble and play off each other.
Akiya: There were lots of moments where we were really trying to create an object.
Miranda: It’s fascinating to see how if you give an object, like a feather duster, enough focus it can become something else, like a parrot.
How does the show bring an outdoor activity like sailing to the stage?
Miranda: You see the mast, you see the sails, and you see impressions and versions of boats. If you sail I think that there’s enough detail in there to be able to understand some of the actions like tacking and jibing.
Akiya: We show different versions of the boat Swallow, which meant rehearsals often revolved around us seeing how we could get the boat to really come to life.
Miranda: It’s been really interesting to see whether the boat needs a mast and a bow, and whether everyone needs to respond when we’re practising different kinds of jibes and ready about. We used the sailing trip [which the cast and creative team undertook as part of their research] to think about how boats move and how that feels. We were surprised by the sailing, and how much fun it was…
Akiya: …and also the feeling and the pace of it. Once you’ve been on a boat you realise actually, if the wind doesn’t come, it’s really frustrating! I found a lovely connection between me, Akiya, the adult in the boat, waiting for the wind to come, and Akiya playing Titty, the child waiting for the wind to come, and I thought, ‘there’s no difference at all’.
Miranda: There are so many lovely moments where it could be an adult or a child onstage and actually it’s irrelevant, because the human quality of what they’re feeling is universal. Everyone’s been to that place, and as an adult you can still feel those things sometimes, so I think it gives you a little window into remembering.
Swallows and Amazons runs from 1st Dec – 15th Jan, times and prices vary.
For more information and tickets call BOV Box Office on: 0117 9877877, or book online at http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/swallowsandamazons.html.
Interview by Eleanor Fogg
Photographs by Chris Collier
Visit Swallows and Amazons extras more backstage interviews, information on the design process and photo galleries.