Swallows and Amazons – we speak to Musical Director Tarek Merchant

Tarek (at piano) in Swallows and Amazons. Photo by Simon Annand

Tarek (at piano) in Swallows and Amazons. Photo by Simon Annand

I start the day by leading a vocal warm up with the cast, which takes about 15 minutes. This makes certain the cast are in good voice, and won’t injure themselves. Then we do a tune up. Then come any individual instrument calls, where all the actor/musicians might split off from the rest of the company to focus on something with a fine toothed comb. As with everything, the director has a dramaturgical eye with the music. I’m responsible for keeping the music on track, but now the show is open my main focus is to lead the musicians on stage each night.

When we first got into the theatre it was wonderful to finally hear the music in the space, it gave us a glimmer of what it might be like in performance. In the rehearsal room, with it being an enclosed space the sound rings a little more – which in a way is encouraging as it makes it sound like we are making a huge sound – you can lose the beautiful detail of the score. When we got onto the stage, we could hear the individual layers, everybody’s parts much more clearly. The way we are able to open up that music, and fill the theatre with it is really exciting… there’s nothing to hide behind.

The music is composed by Divine Comedy front man, Neil Hannon. As the show has had previous incarnations, it’s had various gestation periods – so I’ve been given lots of different arrangements to play with. I’ve worked mostly from the tour arrangements – but the line-up of actor/musicians we have this time is different even from the line-up on tour! Our job is to work out who does what. We’ve gained a trombone, which we haven’t had before, so instantly we had to think – right, where can we use this?

Our cellist is also our flautist, so we had to work out how to partition those parts. A lot of it has been a logistical juggling act, but it’s definitely part of the beauty of this show. It’s about picking things up and making things work, it’s been similar with the instruments. We have a pallette of sounds, rather like toys, which we’ve had to think about – how do we use all these colours, these sounds together?

A couple of the arrangements are new. They’ve slotted in very well, and we’ve had lots of fun playing with them, seeing how much dramatic mileage we can get out of them. When Titty is stranded alone on Wildcat Island, she rises to the challenge of being on her own in a scary new world – the music is an incredible reflection of the way that she feels and it’s been fantastic to explore that.

I feel like I’m trying to get the most out of this wonderful score that Neil has built. The Amazons’ sound is so different to that of the Swallows. The Swallows are elegant and precise whilst the Amazons are filthier and aggressive. We have some real gritty sax parts for them. With so many intricacies in the score, I feel like I’m excavating it and polishing it up.

The Mother (Saskia Portway) has moments in the show where she has to play quite onerous cello lines – I think having a character play an instrument like that is just like giving a character a line. What she doesn’t say is felt through that haunting sound, and as an audience you can put the two things together. There’s an extra richness, a depth to the story that you can’t quite capture in words.

Being a musician that is also acting in the show, it’s great that we aren’t stuck in an orchestra pit every night. There’s something about playing live on stage, there’s more of a connection with the drama of that particular performance. You’re constantly plugged into the action on stage. There’s something for the audience too as you can physically see the music being made – I feel like you hear the music differently when you can see its origins.

There’s a huge demand on the performers. They have to memorise all the music, there are no music stands to read from… but that’s what’s exciting about it – you’re not tied into your physical score. You’re tied to the actors in front of you, performing a scene. Originally, we were all a little bit freaked out by the rake on the stage! Trying to ‘row’ on a dolly with wheels, in between playing, we were finding ourselves slipping down towards the front row of seats. It took a lot of practice to get that right!

I’m playing the piano myself in the show, so it’s been very hectic. I’ve had to learn my own parts, lead the band, teach the vocals, and bring everyone in at the right time! Juggling all of these things, I hope it still has the beauty and integrity of the previous productions, but a personality that reflects the wealth of talents we have in the cast this time round.

Swallows and Amazons is showing until Saturday 17 January. Tickets and information here.

Swallows and Amazons
27 Nov 2014-17 Jan 2015


10 things a Swallow couldn’t leave home without

Are there days when you’ve been caught short without an umbrella, or you can’t find those keys in the bottom of your bag? Not for a Swallow! The highly organised, sensible and utterly lovable Walker children from our production of Swallows and Amazons are always prepared for any occasion. They would never be seen without these:

1. A useful pen knife

For any foreseeable occasion.

2. A barometer

With no smartphones this is an essential weather predicting device.

With no smartphones this is an essential weather predicting device.

3. A tin of corned beef

Because there is no better lunchtime snack.

Because there is no better lunchtime snack.

4. Memorised instructions for this paper aeroplane


…I mean, who doesn’t know how to make a paper Swallow?

5. Exceptional knowledge of navigating the stars.

Because who needs Google Maps when you have the stars.

6. 6 eggs, individually wrapped for fear of smashing


It just makes sense.

7. This map of uncharted territories

lake district old map

For the impromptu expeditions to Wild Cat Island.

8. A copy of this essential reference book


You’re not a true Swallow until you know how to tie a Butterfly Coil.

9. This fashionable swimwear


Speedos are so last year.

10. Their determination to always do the right thing.

Swallows and Amazons - 2014 - Picture by Simon Annand (4)

Swallows forever!

Swallows and Amazons is showing until Saturday 17 January. Tickets and information here.

Swallows and Amazons
27 Nov 2014-17 Jan 2015

An interview with Swallows and Amazons Director Pieter Lawman

Our Christmas family musical Swallows and Amazons has set sail across the wild seas towards Wild Cat Island and our Theatre stage. But before it left port (aka the rehearsal room) we caught up with Revival Director Pieter Lawman to discover the driving force behind this memorable production and why it is inspiring imaginations.

Revival Director Pieter Lawman - Photography by Chris Cooper

Revival Director Pieter Lawman – Photography by Chris Cooper

What do you want audiences to take away from Swallows and Amazons?

It’s a Christmas show so you want people to come away warmed and entertained, having had a wonderful evening with their family. For a lot of people, it’s the only time of year that they come to the theatre so ultimately I want people to come away having had an amazing and fun evening out.

It’s a reflective piece about what it is to be a child, and to play as a child. If we can allow people two and a half hours of time to think about that then they might come away thinking about their own life slightly differently.

The production evokes feelings of nostalgia in many, has working on the show brought back memories of your childhood?

I grew up in a tiny little village in Leicestershire. And we really did run around in fields and play until the sun went down and that’s when we went home for dinner. Your neighbours children would knock on the door in the morning and you’d go out and play, go on bike rides from village to village, made sports and games and events. And I look back on all that very fondly, that freedom just to go and get lost and get scruffy and make up games.

In the show the children sail off to an island on their own and this is based on a real set of children who did that and you have to question whether that would happen today. Perhaps not, but maybe we can bring them up in a way that leads more towards that. That sense of freedom and imagination and play.

The Swallows and the Amazons have vivid imaginations – how does imaginative play inform the decisions you make in the rehearsal room?

It goes back to Tom Morris, the director of the original 2010 production, who has a phrase that ‘the den making instinct never dies’… and I know what he means. Children quite easily will pull a sheet over their head and be in a space ship, or a tent, or under their tent and hiding from monsters. I fully agree with Tom that deep down, as grown-ups, we all still want to do that. We love it.

There’s a great quote from a hard-core American rapper who says “I don’t care who you are, when a child gives you a toy telephone, you answer it.” You can’t deny that. Children buy into this world, and as adults we want to as well.

As adults imaginative play is something we still desperately want in our lives. I think one of the reasons why we get into box sets and watch four episodes of Breaking Bad in a row is because you want to immerse yourself in that world. You don’t want to switch off and watch one episode in bite-size chunks and move on with your real life. You can allow yourself to get into that world – I think that goes back to our childhood need for imagination.

What has been your favourite moment in the production?

My favourite scene is where the Swallows and the Amazons first meet. I think it goes through a wild journey, it’s very funny and very tense, there’s some lovely theatricality to it. Up to this moment things have been quite fast paced, we’ve met the boat Swallow, they’ve been sailing, there have been lots of fun theatricalities with telescopes but this scene is the first time in the show where we really find out who these characters are and how they feel about each other.

Are you a Swallow or an Amazons?

Ooh that’s mean! I think I would like to be an Amazon – but I think I’m a Swallow.

What’s your favourite thing about Christmas?

I like Christmas shopping for other people. I like spending a weekend on my own, window shopping and looking at all the Christmas lights…that’s a terrible answer. I like being with my family! It’s so rare that I get time off at Christmas to spend time with them – so not shopping, being with my family.

Swallows and Amazons is showing until Saturday 17 January. Tickets and information here.

Swallows and Amazons
27 Nov 2014-17 Jan 2015

Swallows and Amazons: An interview with Bethan Nash and Millie Corser

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates and O’Toole Prize Winners Bethan Nash and Millie Corser are in rehearsals for Swallows and Amazons. We chat to them ahead of the opening, to find out what it’s like working on your first professional production out of drama school.

It’s one week until Swallows and Amazons opens, how are you feeling at this point?

Bethan Nash: I’m super excited! Just coming here this morning and seeing the beginnings of the set going up, I can’t wait to get on stage. And I can’t wait for everyone to see it. It’s such a lovely story and really charming. So yes, very excited…and a bit nervous.

Millie Corser: Well, the music is phenomenal. My friend laughed at me when I said my first job out of the Theatre School was going to be musical because I always used to cry whenever anyone tried to make me sing. I’m crying a little inside still but I am enjoying it because the characters are so much fun. (And also the Amazons get the best songs!)

How does rehearsing at Bristol Old Vic compare to rehearsing at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School?

BN: Well the process is quite similar, but the biggest difference is the room. The Clore rehearsal room at Bristol Old Vic is such a creative space, it has certainly felt different creating theatre in there. The experience level of the actors I’m working with is fantastic, for me and Millie it’s such a great experience to watch them and see how they work and approach the text and the music.

MC: At the Theatre School, it’s great because we immediately get to work with Stage Managers, the Costume Department, the Lighting Department etc… all that training has helped immensely. Working alongside professional actors who have been in the industry for a lot longer is amazing. I feel like I’ve learnt so much from them.

Swallows and Amazons is a trip down memory lane for some; there’s a feeling of nostalgia for those who read the book as a child, or perhaps fond memories of family holidays. Do you feel nostalgic working on the musical?

MC: Well I don’t think I’ll ever grow up! When I was a kid I was just a pirate in dungarees all the time – so I’m pretty much made for the part. But it does make you nostalgic. I’m currently moving out of my family home and last weekend I went back for the last time. It was really emotional, but in a good way, because it’s like a new era. The show does reflect on things like that, of childhood memories and growing up. But I’m personally thinking more about the future now, I’ve just left drama school and I’m going to try and be a grownup soon!

BN: When I was younger I used to watch the film of Swallows and Amazons a lot. I watched it recently before we started rehearsing so it brought back memories for me of being seven years old and going on adventures and camping.

Millie and I, for our graduation, went to the Lake District with our class and stayed in some cottages by a lake. We had found out the week before that we had the parts in the show so when we got there we decided it would be the perfect opportunity for character research. We went up massive mountains and went swimming in a lake and by a river…unfortunately no sailing, but a lot of exploring.

How have you found working with people like Movement Director Toby Sedgwick and Director Pieter Lawman?

BN: It’s an absolute honour. We know them so well from productions like War Horse and Frankenstein and we’d heard lots about him before, but to meet him and work with him in person is fantastic. He’s so experienced and knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants, I felt very safe working with him. Having that permission to explore and really thinking about the physicality of being on the boat was great. Half the play we’re on the sea so the work we did with Toby was really looking into how it feels and how we can portray this to an audience. When we went sailing for real that really helped, we didn’t have to pretend. On stage we want to make it look as real as possible so the audience can almost not notice and then really listen to what’s being said and get adsorbed in the story.

MC: Pieter is so nice. Previously, I’ve worked under all sorts of directors but I think he optimises the actor/director. He’s charming, open, warm, funny and silly…very, very silly so I like him a lot!

What’s been the greatest challenge of the rehearsal process?

BN: The thing that stands out is how high the singing parts are for me. Rosalie Craig, who played Susan originally, has a fantastic singing voice and I think the score had been written with her in mind. I am a soprano but one of the notes is a top G# so it is quite high! I have to go into the corner of the rehearsal room before we start to pitch my note, squealing like a kettle going off! So getting the high notes has been a challenge for me. But we have a week to go so it’ll be fine.

Through a lot of the show we ask the audience to use their imagination and right from the start ask them to buy into the story that we’re telling. I think it makes it more magical when you perform theatre like this, there’s a shared understanding between the audience and us as actors and musicians which is really special.

What’s been your favourite part of rehearsals?

BN: I think because the show is so malleable, in terms of the creativity you can have making anything into a prop, everyone’s imaginations are running on overdrive at the moment and that makes for a really fun atmosphere. And because we’re playing children as well you remember what it’s like to be a child and to play which makes it even more entertaining.

MC: I suppose getting the job actually! It’s so nice getting it with Beth who I lived with for two years and trained with for three and also playing a part that is really sweet and very similar to me and then working with these amazing people. But everything is a high point when you’re working professionally!

Christmas is always a magical time at Bristol Old Vic – the audiences are buzzing, the atmosphere is electric, we’ve got Christmas jumper day… what’s your favourite thing about Christmas?

BN: Oh where do I begin!? Well I love Bristol’s Christmas market which I’ve visited already. Seeing family and friends, the food is amazing. I love the presents, who doesn’t? I’d really like a Christmas jumper this year so I’m going to get a full outfit and go for it with tinsel and a Santa hat.

MC: Would it be bad to say mulled wine? I’m going to say friends and family…cough and mulled wine. Maybe drinking mulled wine with friends and family! And I love the Christmas lights.

What’s next?

BN: I don’t know yet, it’s a surprise! I guess that’s part of the actor’s life that I’m just getting used to now. When the show is up and running I’ll be able to audition for other things but until then who knows.

I love Shakespeare so I’d really like to get involved in doing that afterwards. And there are venues and companies that I’d love to work at, like the RSC and The Globe or the National. But then musicals, film, TV…anything! If its good work and there’s good people working on I think I’d try anything.

MC: I went to Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time two years ago with a show called Romeo and Juliet for Children and Beth and I are hoping to try and get some funding to do that again. We think it would be a successful thing to develop it two years later.

I think I’d love to get into comedy though. It’s hard when you’ve made someone laugh you just can’t get enough of it, it’s addictive. That’s what I really enjoy doing. I don’t want to be a big scary woman, I want to have fun!

Swallows and Amazons begins previews on Thursday 27 Nov and runs over Christmas until Saturday 17 January. Tickets and information here.

Swallows and Amazons
27 Nov 2014-17 Jan 2015
Performance Schedule