Helen Edmundson on her stage version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS

'Dream' – Akiya Henry and company

'Dream' – Akiya Henry (photo Simon Annand)

Helen Edmundson is a multi-award-winning playwright with a string of stellar hits to her name, including adapting Jamila Gavin’s novel Coram Boy for the National Theatre, and winning the John Whiting Award (Best New Play) for The Clearing. Her latest venture – bringing Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons to life for the stage – is a collaboration with songwriter Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy and director Tom Morris (War Horse, Coram Boy). After a flying start at Bristol Old Vic and a critically acclaimed West End run, the ships have set sail once again touring the UK. Helen reveals how this ‘rich and appealing fantasy’ (Evening Standard) all began…

I’d really enjoyed working on Coram Boy, and I was keen to write something else aimed at a younger, family audience, so I was very pleased when director Tom Morris and songwriter Neil Hannon asked me to collaborate on ‘Swallows‘. Beyond being a really engaging adventure story for children, the book is about important things – about giving children freedom and time to play, about encouraging them in their imaginative games and allowing them to learn through them – and the characters are honestly and lovingly drawn. It is very much of its time – it’s set in the 1920s – but there is a charm and nostalgia which comes with that. And we all knew it could be funny.

'Amazons' – Sophie Waller, Greg Barnett, Celia Adams and Jon Trenchard (photo Simon Annand)

'Amazons' – Sophie Waller, Greg Barnett, Celia Adams and Jon Trenchard (photo Simon Annand)

We developed the book and lyrics over a period of eighteen months – working at The National Theatre Studio. Neil lives in Dublin, so we would get together sporadically, often with marvellous actors to help us to try out our ideas, and then go off and work individually for a time. Tom Morris was with us all the way through, so the whole process was properly collaborative and organic. When Tom took over as Artistic Director at Bristol Old Vic, our show went with him, and became his first Christmas show at the theatre in 2010/11. Last year we continued to work on it, and in December The National Theatre and Fiery Angel, and The Children’s Touring Partnership brought the show into the West End. Now it sets sail on a nationwide tour.

'Swallows' – Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akiya Henry and Stewart Wright (photo Simon Annand)

'Swallows' – Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akiya Henry and Stewart Wright (photo Simon Annand)

One of the keys to the adaptation was realising that we could use the notion of imaginative play to unlock the story and its staging. We decided early on that we were not going to flood the stage and attempt to have real boats, but that we would allow the characters to create everything they needed, by grabbing whatever might be lying around in an old shed, or attic or garden. Imagination would be the answer to everything. And we would ask the audience to suspend their disbelief right from the start. So the great thing is that the script we now have can be tackled with very few resources. It’s an invitation to be inventive and could be realised in lots of different ways. The children in our production are played by adults, but they could be played equally well by children. The songs are reasonably simple and easy to pick up. I really hope it will be a tempting prospect for schools and amateur groups.

Tickling Trivia: Arthur Ransome, the author of the book “Swallows and Amazons” was married to Trotsky’s secretary.

Swallows and Amazons playscript

Swallows and Amazons (£9.99)

Swallows and Amazons is currently touring the UK until 31st March 2012, click here to book tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript. To order your copy at the special price of £8 (normal price £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

Coming soon on the NHB blog! Helen talks about her next big project, The Heresy of Love, premiering at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, February 2012.


Tom WellsTalented Yorkshire playwright Tom Wells tells us a little about his hilarious new play The Kitchen Sink – ‘comic, poignant and utterly gripping… outstanding’ Evening Standard – that premiered this week at the new Bush Theatre. A play set entirely in the kitchen of an eccentric Yorkshire family, it’s about big dreams and small changes, and a healthy measure of chaos too!

In six words only, how would you describe your new play, The Kitchen Sink?

A family. A year. A sink.

What attracted you to writing a play about family life?

I think I just find my family quite funny. And lovely. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. So that’s what started it. And a lot of the comedy I love, things like The Royle Family and Home Time and Gavin and Stacey, really good, compassionate comedy, is centred around families, and it works because you see a bit of your own family in there, hopefully. Mostly though, I’d just moved to London and I was feeling a bit homesick. It all sort of added up.

The play is set in East Yorkshire, as was your first play – Me, As A Penguin – is it important for you to root your plays in a place you are familiar with, having grown up in the region?

It’s helpful to know the world you’re writing about, I think, because then you can make it detailed, and be a bit mischievous with it, and hopefully not make too many mistakes.  But also: I love Withernsea and I love Hull. They both feel like very particular places to me, with their own sets of stories to tell. Withernsea is a sort of fading seaside town, but it’s smaller than the others, the Scarboroughs and the Bridlingtons, sort of a seaside underdog. Once the train stopped going there it got a bit lost, I think. A bit eccentric. And it does sometimes feel like a bit of a dead end. But also, it’s very flat with the sea and this big big sky and it is the sort of place – I think, anyway – where you’ve got space to dream big dreams, and look out at the world and imagine a slightly different life for yourself. So it felt right to set The Kitchen Sink there really. And Hull is a bit like Derby and a bit like Coventry and a bit like Wolverhampton, a bit like a lot of places, sort of scruffy and funny and a bit of an anti-climax. But there’s definitely something special about it too. A ‘Hullness’. Me, As A Penguin felt like a story that could only happen in Hull. It felt like that to me anyway.

The Kitchen Sink jacket

The Kitchen Sink by Tom Wells (£9.99)

How would you describe your approach to writing plays, and where do you draw your inspiration from?

I just try to start writing and sort of go for it. Properly. It’s not much of an approach really. Drink tea. Eat biscuits. Panic. Then, once I’ve got to the end, spend a lot of time trying to make it better. Read it out loud. Do the voices. Show it to people I trust, who are always much better at knowing what to do than I am. Listen to Belle and Sebastian. Weep. That sort of thing.

Inspiration is lots of things: stories people tell you, stuff you hear on buses, letters from my Nan, knitting patterns, photographs by the Caravan Gallery, recipes, the three-minute pop song. Mostly, though, it’s just things that happen to you, or the people you love. You just have to colour it in a bit differently. Change the names.

What are your own ambitions for the future?

I’d like to keep writing plays.

Tom Wells’ new play – The Kitchen Sink – is currently running at the new Bush Theatre until 17th December 2011, click here to book tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).