Last week I had the pleasure of taking my four year old daughter to the Bristol Old Vic to see their 2014 production of Swallows and Amazons. It was a huge success in 2012 so I was glad to be given the opportunity to see this year's production.
However, I was a little apprehensive.
What is it all about? The synopsis stated that it's 'a story of an idyllic era, of endless summer evenings and the beauty of youthful imagination.' Bristol old Vic
The plot summary in Wikipedia of the original book states that it 'relates the outdoor adventures and play of two families of children.' One lot of children who are holidaying in the Lake District and the other who live there.
Well that sounded pretty good! We love play! Oh, but hang on... Will my 4 year old daughter sit through over two hours of theatre? She can't sit still to eat her lunch!
Well... I can tell you that she did! And below I will try to relay why I think the cast did a wonderful job of capturing my daughters imagination and playing to it perfectly.
Waiting for the show to begin!
The actors playing John, Susan, Titty and Roger, the Walker children, did an excellent job of allowing you to believe that they were indeed children who were more than excited about their voyage across the lake on their own without parents! Not something we can ever imagine today! Which stimulates a whole other conversation about our children's perceived freedom that is not for today.
My daughter was sucked in! her eyes followed their every move as they spoke and moved around the stage like children who's minds were firing away with all sorts of imaginings. The performance started with excitement and energy and never relented at any point - totally matching the energy of children never wanting to stop playing, even for a minute.
My daughter asked me 'what are they doing?' a couple of times and I said to her that 'they are pretending. They are using their imaginations to have a great adventure.' This was enough for her. She didn't need any other explanation. This was acceptable. The Walker children created a whole world for the story by using the whole theatre space. They looked out over the audience to things in the distance and every time they did so my daughter looked round to see what they were looking at because she believed in what they were doing. They ran through the audience and used the auditorium as space to explore. Rows of children stood up from their seats to see what the children had spotted - they weren't in a theatre anymore, they were all on Wild Cat Island.
Then the Amazons appeared, the children local to the Lakes, and they were mischievous and loud and full of energy and were pirates! My daughter wanted to be an Amazon. They were pirates and she loves pirates! All adults were Barbarians! Brilliant! And Uncle James Turner became Captain Flint who the Swallows and Amazons would join forces to fight in their war. We were excited! We were presented with children swimming in the sea, sailing across lakes, rowing up to Captain Flint's ship, sitting around a fire created by clicking fingers and hand movements mimicking flames, and wonderful songs that reflected the mood of the scene - my daughter loves singing and has been singing the bits she can remember ever since.
Birds were made of tools and bin liners, a parrot was made of a feather duster and garden hand shears, yet we all believed they were birds coming to life in front of us. Exactly as children would grab whatever they could find in a flow of play to create characters and props to further the story.
My daughter likes to move all the time, so sitting down for over two hours was difficult, but being a family show it was acceptable for her to fidget and move around a little as many other children were doing - it's hard to expect a child to sit still especially when they are excited. We were lucky enough to move the end of the row where if she stood up she wasn't in the way of anyone else. During the second half she physically moved towards the stage as she was drawn in (there's me grabbing her skirt to pull her back towards her chair!), she bounced on her seat at the exciting bits - I won't tell you because I don't want to spoil it - and she jumped up in the air shouting 'they did it!'
The best bit for her was being able to help the Swallows and Amazons to fight Captain Flint by throwing things at him across the theatre! Great fun!
More than anything else, here is how I know she enjoyed the show; this is what she spent yesterday doing...
getting out her crafty stuff and making a costume to be an Amazon. Tonight we'll be sailing across the seas to find Wild Cat Island.
Okay, so nowadays we don't quite give our children the same freedom to explore without parent supervision as back in 1929 for many reasons, however the most important aspect of the story is how the children use their imagination to turn their surroundings and the people around them into the world of the Swallows and Amazons with Captains, pirates, barbarians, a parrot and a Queen.
Whilst we've been evaluating our recent Parents 4 Play survey we have already discovered that nearly every parent out of over 200 parents directly mention that their child or children like to take part in imaginative play and role-play. We can all do plenty to nurture our children's imaginations and most simply by making sure there are resources they can use such as they did in this show, and perhaps we can work on the freedom bit.
So, long story short, take the opportunity to see this show and pander to your imagination.