It’s a journey into the unknown for many of today’s children simply to enter the world of their counterparts from the 1920s. No gadgets, mobile phones or central heating here: the children in Arthur Ransome’s Lake District stories come across at first sight as an alien species, with their talk of telegrams, rotters and buttered eggs for tea.
But contemporary children watching this stage adaptation very soon jump that hurdle and cotton on to something else: that these youngsters, for all their quaint rules and customs, have an enviable freedom. The youngest only seven and the eldest 12, they are allowed to sail to an island and camp alone, swimming, building fires and making mistakes.
They are also free to let their imaginations roam and this is the touchstone for Tom Morris’s excellent staging (first seen at Bristol Old Vic last Christmas and on tour after its run here). He celebrates the children’s easy switch into fantasy and combines childlike play with stage play in a production that invites everyone, young and old, to see a couple of blankets and a pole as a brave explorer’s camp or a black bin-bag wrapped round a pair of shears as a menacing cormorant.
This cheerful ingenuity is infectious and the audience is soon playing along. First mate Helen Edmundson provides a sprightly script and able seaman Neil Hannon laces the show with songs, played on stage, that shape the mood and have a nice, peppery quality.
The actors meanwhile relish the idiosyncrasies of the children without ridiculing them. Richard Holt as the frightfully upright John reveals his character’s anxieties about living up to his remote naval father; Katie Moore is touching as the motherly, anxious Susan, forever worrying about the weather; Akiya Henry makes an exuberant, feisty Titty and Stewart Wright is lovable as the youngest child, Roger: the sort of lad who stores a slice of toast in his sock in case of emergencies. Celia Adams and Sophie Waller strut fearsomely as the dastardly Blackett sisters, who style themselves as Amazon pirates but mustn’t upset the neighbours.
This is a joyous production that works on liberating the inner child and amplifies that by having adults play the children, so that we see their future selves peeping through. And in one moving moment, the staging offers a glimpse of their wartime experiences to come, which makes their childhood freedom seem all the more precious.