The tiny ice yacht speeds across the frozen lake. It’s a home-made contraption, a sledge with a wooden mast and a square sail made from a bed sheet, but in the ferocious storm it’s moving at a tremendous pace. Then, crash! The sledge hits the lakeshore in the dark and the two young people on board are flung into a deep snowdrift.
Winter Holiday is the most dramatic and exciting of the Swallows and Amazons series of books by Arthur Ransome, bordering on fantasy but based on fact and the author’s intimate knowledge of the Lake District landscape and moods. And his ability to create wonderful, believable characters, which is why the books are still read and loved after 90 years.
It would make a great adventure movie, but in a budget project of sheer genius, it’s been turned into a stage production that was a great hit with all the generations gathered at the delightful Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness (just a minute away from the shore of that very lake).
The show was conceived as a lockdown project by Chris Eldon Lee who’s had a formidable career in BBC Radio, producing more than 250 programmes and writing many plays; he was also a founder member of BBC Radio Shropshire. And a lifelong Arthur Ransome fan, so with time on his hands, he secured the rights to Winter Holiday and set about condensing the novel into two hours, writing on a narrowboat on the Llangollen Canal.
It’s quite an achievement; the Mag North team are great fans of Ransome and last year took part in a marathon reading of Winter Holiday at the Windermere Jetty Museum. That took all day, literally; we were still reading way after the museum had closed for the day. So all credit to Eldon Lee for losing none of the essence of the story, which is completely loyal to the book, but also entertainingly innovative. We meet Arthur Ransome himself as narrator (Tim Baker) who later re-appears as Captain Flint, and within minutes of the opening scene we stop noticing that all the actors on stage are actually grown-ups. Some of them more grown-up than others.
But an age-blind production means that all the cast are experienced actors, with the bonus of playing on Ransome’s subtle humour; in fact, there’s a great deal of comedy in this show. Roger, obviously, the ship’s boy played here by grey-haired Mark Smith, never knows how to take life seriously. So here’s a very Susan-ish first mate, Gabriela La Foley, keeping him in check, while Captain John Walker (Ben Seager) could have stepped from the pages of Brideshead Revisited. Ruth Tipton is a perfectly imaginative Titty, and the Blackett girls, Nancy and Peggy are brilliantly stylised caricatures (Sally Tonge and Dawn Lake). There’s a series of cameo roles from Rob Hutchings, as Mr Dixon, the postman, the doctor, and the man selling hot pies on the frozen lake, while Hannah Williams is Mrs Blackett.
But the stars of the show, as indeed they are stars of the book, are Dick and Dorothea, newcomers to the gang who win respect by their quick learning of morse and semaphore, and their skating prowess. Tom Walton is the absent-minded Dick, head in a book, eyes on the stars, for whom there’s a wonderful surprise at the revised ending; Ransome, why didn’t you think to bring in the aurora borealis? And Jo Cox is delightful as fanciful Dorothea, constantly creating adventures in her head and in her notebook, without realising she’s taking part in the best one of all.
There are minimal props, a projected background of stills from the book’s images, with occasional animations, and some cleverly adapted sea-shanties alongside original songs. The cast provide their own accompaniment, on ukulele, penny whistle, banjo and guitar. It’s a triumph of staging, as well as a tribute to a master storyteller. Chris Eldon Lee ponders why this 90 year old story still resonates today. “Well, Ransome’s children have to quarantine because of an outbreak of mumps, and we all know about quarantining. And they experiment with their own era of social media by messaging each other using semaphore and morse code.”
He posed for a photo in the foyer with Jonathan Walton, who’s listed in the production credits as ship’s carpenter, and is also the father of the actor playing Dick. But what drew the attention of the Ransome fans among the audience was his “Squashy Hat”, a homage to one of the author’s great characters in another story, Pigeon Post. Now wouldn’t THAT make a great stage show!