Swallows and Amazons (4 stars)

Swallows and Amazons

Slick, spirited musical play with Neil Hannon score grasps essence of original

The four children of the Walker family, aged 12 to 7, are given permission by their naval father to set off alone on the sailing dinghy Swallow to camp on an uninhabited island on Coniston Water in the Lake District. Their imaginations let loose, they become fearless navigators, explorers, pirates, conquistadors; they remap the world and the seven seas around them. Their adventures are intensified after encountering the feisty Blackett sisters, crew of a rival boat, the Amazon, and their irritable but fun-loving uncle, quickly given a piratical role as Captain Flint. It's a world of fantasy and role-play, but as ‘Barbarian’ adults are sidelined, the adventures offer real challenges to children facing the great outdoors, as well as friendships and rivalries, on their own.

To the theatrical mind this is territory as fertile as it is hallowed, with many regarding Arthur Ransome’s tales as sacred, idyllic treasures of childhood. But writer Helen Edmundson and songwriter Neil Hannon (yes, he of the Divine Comedy) have grasped its essence with a creative, slick, spirited musical play that's in Edinburgh for six days on its first tour around the UK, a collaboration between the Children’s Touring Partnership, the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre.

The children are played by twenty- and thirty-something adults – Roger, aged nearly eight, has a beard – but so effectively do they take on their roles it’s the older adult characters of Captain Flint and a supposedly curmudgeonly policeman who struggle more to look their age. The busy stage has flat-capped bit-part players tripling up as musicians – Hannon’s entertaining and intelligent score comes live from a piano, various strings and percussion – and willing stagehands who help manoeuvre the ribbons, sticks of bamboo and sheets that shape the boats tacking to and fro across the lake.

The audience are sufficiently drawn in by the visual creativity that we become willing participants in an enjoyably spontaneous and unexpectedly slapstick finale. It's a production to open children (six and above will get it) up to the imaginative potential of the stage in a less formulaic way than pantomime or big production musicals. Other ages and stages among the audience can smile, indulge in the nostalgic charm, and be assured that neither Ransome’s magic, nor Hannon's musical credibility, are at all diminished.

Edinburgh Festival Theatre, until Sat 4 Feb

Swallows and Amazons

Arthur Ransome's classic tale of children on boats is brought to life as an action-packed musical adventure directed by Tom Morris and featuring music from The Divine Comedy.