Eastern Angles’ play We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea returns to a time when children were free to roam
- Credit: Archant
A new Eastern Angles production has been an eye-opener for the cast in terms of how much freedom children used to have in the days of Arthur Ransome. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke visits them on set at The Hush House aircraft hanger at Bentwaters.
You may think that The Hush House – the huge sound proof aircraft hanger at RAF Bentwaters – was somewhat land-locked and therefore not the ideal place for a play which takes place on The River Orwell and then out into the North Sea.
But, you’d be surprised what the magic of theatre can do. With an ingeniously exploded boat, some well-judged props and set-dressing and topped off with some atmospheric sound and lighting, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little seasick as you watched Eastern Angles summer production of We Didn’t Mean To Go Sea.
It’s an expanded re-mount of their critically acclaimed 2008 adaptation with a script by Nick Wood and directed by Eastern Angles founder Ivan Cutting.
One of the real eye-opening treats from the original production was designer Rosie Alabaster’s opened out yacht which provided the set and took up most of the stage. It was a brilliant piece of visual theatre and became a character in the play in its own right.
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The design of the set meant that the actors could be both on deck and down below in the cabin and still engage with each other and the audience.
When I meet Ivan Cutting, he is wrestling with the practical problems of staging this intimate play in a vast space like the Hush House, and I suggest that he’s got his work cut out trying to better the amazing set in the original production.
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He shoots me a wicked grin and his eyes light up: “Oh, that won’t be a problem,” he laughs, “because we are using Rosie’s original set. It was such a fantastic piece of work that we kept it in storage. We were loath to throw it away because it was so unusual and I suspect that somewhere in the back of my mind I had an inkling that we would return to this Arthur Ransome classic.”
But Ivan says that this new production is not going to be a simple, straight-forward re-run of the 2008 show. “The staging will be completely different because we are in a permanent building this time and it’s a much larger space.
“The audience will be looking down on the action rather than looking up at it as they were last time and most importantly, we will have a completely new cast, who will be putting their own stamp on their roles and on the play itself.”
Ivan loves The Hush House as a venue. It’s a large adaptable space which lends itself to epic theatre. Eastern Angles have staged a number of summer productions there over the years all of which celebrate the Suffolk landscape Bentwater Roads, Margaret Catchpole and now We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. Even the Nordic epic Ragnarok had links with Raedwald, Sutton Hoo and Suffolk’s Saxon heritage.
The story of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea transports Arthur Ransome’s plucky youngsters from the comparative safety of the Lake District and casts them adrift in the Orwell estuary. The Walker family, who we first meet in Swallows and Amazons are sailing the cutter Goblin, based on Ransome’s own boat the Nancy Blackett, when they run out of fuel. The weather is becalmed and they need the engine to return to harbour.
Fog settles in as high tide approaches and they realise that the anchor chain is too short to hold them in position. They have promised their mother that they will not leave the estuary, that they will not go out beyond Landguard Point but in the fog and the darkness they realise they have drifted out to sea and will need to find a way to sail home.
“It’s a terrific story and we wanted to do a family show and it’s just perfect for a piece of summer magic that is all about Suffolk.
“There are two audio-visual panels which place in the middle of the North Sea so it will all be very atmospheric. What I love about it is that whereas all the other Swallows and Amazon books are very much about play-acting, about pretending to be pirates and searching for lost treasure, this is for real. They really do drift out of sea and is much more dramatic as a result. It’s a story about growing up.
“We have four kids on a boat and they have got to find a way to survive and they do. It’s about learning to take responsibility with the older kids looking after the younger ones. It’s a real adventure story and that is what makes it such great drama.”
We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea by Eastern Angles is at The Hush House on the former RAF Bentwaters site, near Woodbridge, until July 9.
Eastern Angles actors offer a view from the deck
For the actors Matilda Howe, Rosalind Steele, Joel Sams and Christopher Buckley We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea is an opportunity to step back in time and experience childhood at a time when youngsters were allowed to go off and explore the world.
Discussing it together in rehearsal, they see the world of Arthur Ransome almost as a parallel universe. Childhood in the 1930s was regarded as more of a boys’ own/girls’ own adventure.
Rosalind Steele found it rather disconcerting at how much freedom young people had. “I was amazed that parents would allow their kids just to go off in a boat with a stranger. Parenting has just changed so much. You would never, ever allow four 14 year olds to go off in a boat and into a potentially dangerous situation. I don’t think it’s just a thing in the novel, I think people were a lot more trusting then.
“People weren’t afraid to let kids go out and experience the world. There is something really joyous in the freedom kids had to just go out and play. They were allowed just to go out and be themselves without adult supervision.”
Joel chips in: “But, within this family there is a real expectation of competency. It isn’t that they were less protective but I think they expect children to be resourceful.”
Matilda adds: “Also these kids aren’t novices. As we have seen in the other books like Swallows and Amazons they know how to sail a boat but the interesting thing is when things go wrong what can they do to get home to safety.”
For the actors, none of whom are sailors, in addition to getting inside the heads of young teenagers, they have the additional task of learning the skills sailing enthusiasts take for granted.
“Just getting about the boat is an adventure,” laughs Rosalind. “I have a huge collection of bruises which I keep adding to as I bang into things and fall over.”
The set is a life-sized ‘exploded’ boat, designed by Rosie Alabaster, which allows the audience to follow the action both on deck and in the cabin below.
Joel said: “When we started rehearsals the acting area seemed really small and we were forever barging into each other but as time has gone on and we have got used to things, the boat suddenly seems an awful lot bigger.”
Although, the tone of the show is that it is an awfully big adventure. Rosalind says that the story keeps everything grounded in a world we can understand. “It is a rite of passage. We see the older children taking on the role of parents to the little ones. It’s about growing up, coping with situations in the real world, learning to be an adult.
“I think today’s children are less shielded from the darker elements of the world than they were in the past but in the 1930s, perhaps, children had more opportunity to go and experience the world for themselves.”