Swallows and Amazons

Tom Morris Tom Morris - © Sam Morris
Posted: Tue Dec 13 2011

'War Horse' director Tom Morris has a new show in town: he shares his Captain's log of the rehearsals for 'Swallows and Amazons'.

Monday 14th November: First day of rehearsal
A strange feeling. I'm back in rehearsal room 3 at the National Theatre, which we used as the breakout room for the making of 'War Horse' in 2007.

One of the projects which the NT kindly allowed me to take with me when I left to run the Bristol Old Vic in 2009, has come home to roost. Neil Hannon and Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons' began life in the NT studio with brilliant improvising actors mucking around in ways inspired by the instinctive game playing of children. One more workshop, several rewrites and some extended study of the psychoanalytical theory of DW Winnicott later, and the show became a successful Christmas production in Bristol.

As I describe our theatre-making approach, the new cast look at me with scarcely disguised disbelief. Our job is to encourage the audience to watch a piece of theatre in the same frame of mind that they would accept a child's invitation to turn the space under a tablecloth into a den.

We read Helen's witty script and begin to learn the songs. By the end of the day Richard Holt, as the 12-year-old John, has begun to take command of his crew. And Stewart Wright, a veteran of last year's production in the role of seven-year-old Roger (he's 6' 2", bearded and a competition-level prop forward) has had us in stitches with an improvisation in the character of his younger sibling: 'Fat Vicky'.

Thursday 17th November: Night voyage

Neil Hannon's beautiful song 'Robinson Crusoe' is sung by the character of nine-year-old Titty (we decided to stick with the name, facing down all who thought we should change it). But the song never quite realised its potential in last year's show. My brilliant staff director Cressida Brown suggests re-ordering the script and we decide to improvise a new version of the song this evening, on the basis that horrible mistakes will be more easy to forget if we commit them after sundown.

Akiya Henry, reprising her role as Titty, gamely throws away all of her wonderful work from last year and re-imagines the song as an attempt to keep her fears, which have been raised like the storm around her, at bay.

Hilary Tones plays the children's mother and the cello in the band. She is asked to do both at the same time, as if Titty, who is guarding the Swallows camp overnight while her siblings embark on an audacious night-sortie, were imagining her mother at home in order to strengthen her resolve. Amid growing excitement we sense that the new version might work. We nervously call Helen Edmundson to ask her permission to do it. There is no reply.

Tuesday 29th November: Cap'n Morris returns
The entire company is pretending not to have flu. Katie Moore in the role of 11-year-old Susan is showing heroic fortitude in learning the steps for a 1920s-style swing number while producing phlegm at a flagon a minute.

Sam Kenyon is teaching the Bluecoat ensemble (who play all adult roles and four instruments each) a highly complicated arrangement to support it. Bear in mind that when Sam originally arranged the song in Bristol, his Bluecoats included a trombonist, a fretless bass player, a saxophonist, a pianist, a violinist, a cellist and a percussionist. Replacing them with like-for-like actor musicians was impossible. So he has had to entirely rescore the show for a band which features, at one moment, four cellists.

The arrangement of 'Let's Make the Best of It', Katie Moore's song, now features a virtuoso violin solo (Adrian Garratt) in the style of Stéphane Grappelli. It seemed outlandish when we asked him to try it, but now it's in the show. As we break for lunch we hear that Helen Edmundson has given thumbs up to the re-ordering of 'Robinson Crusoe'. It's been a good morning.

Tuesday 6th December: Land ahoy!
The company are exhausted but we've covered every scene in the show. The 2012 Olympics movement director Toby Sedgwick has been drilling us in the show's famous telescope routines. He says he wants them on his epitaph… and some of the cast agree.

We attempt a run-through, which of course creates an impossible challenge for our magnificent stage management team, who have describe the process of stage managing this show as 'like sewing milk'. During the run they zoom back and forth backstage, putting on blue coats, carrying musical instruments and bits of bamboo and yelling at each other silently.

We have no idea how things will turn out but have discovered in the rehearsal room that everyone we've ever met has a secret fantasy of being a pirate. This seems to be the timeless truth of the show. When we played the show in Bristol last year, significant numbers in the audience turned up in costume. Will they do that in London? Too late to ask. The stage manager, Kerry, has donned her blue coat and called 'Stand by'. We are about to set out on our maiden voyage.