TOMORROW’S opening night of Swallows And Amazons will be the final curtain for Damian Cruden’s artistic directorship after 22 years at York Theatre Royal.

In a summer when he has overseen all eight productions as artistic director for the second summer of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York and at Blenheim Palace, as well as directing Hamlet for the Castle car park site, Damian has since turned his attention to co-directing Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s adventure story.

Working in tandem with Theatre Royal artistic associate John R Wilkinson, Cruden will seeking to match the success of his earlier family shows, The Railway Children at the National Railway Museum, The Wind In the Willows and Peter Pan.

“I’m enjoying working on it, I’m loving doing a play with songs with a lovely company of actor-musicians, and the music by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon is fantastic,” he says.

“The designs by Katie Sykes are delightful, and it’s nice to have Laura Soper in the company. She’s a former member of our Youth Theatre who I directed in the summer shows The Legend Of King Arthur and Peter Pan, and now her first professional show here will coincide with my last.

“These summer shows have had an important role in the Theatre Royal’s work and it feels right to be finishing with a summer show, so we’re all in for an adventure-filled summer on the lake.”

Swallows And Amazons tells the story of the Walker and Blackett children’s adventurous school holiday in the Lake District as they set sail for adventure. There, the Swallows, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, set sail to Wildcat Island where they encounter Nancy and Peggy, the self-proclaimed Amazon Pirates, and the dastardly Captain Flint.

Edmundson’s adaptation with Hannon’s music was first staged by the Bristol Old Vic in 2010. “I didn’t see the Bristol show, though I did see the Theatre by the Lake production at Keswick, and the nature of any piece is that it will be different each time,” he says.

“It’s a storytelling piece where the music can take you in another direction as it’s stunningly beautiful. The cast sing it and play it so beautifully and you don’t want things to get in the way of that.

“You want to keep it clutter-free for them, and while it will be visually beautiful too, it’s very much a storytelling piece that’s faithful to the spirit of the book and the film too.”

Neither Damian nor musical director Kieran Buckeridge, who has worked previously for Northern Broadsides and Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre too, has liaised with composer Neil Hannon. “You could speak to people, but I’m not sure it helps,” reasons Damian. “They don’t want to interfere. They know it’s a new interpretation that you’re doing.”

How will Damian feel tomorrow on his farewell day? “What will have happened by then? We’ll have a new Prime Minister, so there may be other things to worry about than if you’ll come to the York Theatre Royal!” he says.

“I’ve had a great 22 years here; I’ve been privileged to hold the post and in that time we’ve achieved a huge amount often in the face of adversity and often with a very uneven playing field for the arts. The York community has been fantastically supportive of what the theatre does, through giving their time and their creativity.”

Theatre has to contend with “politicians thinking it’s just people dressing up and making noises in the dark, and it seems impossible to change that view,” says Damian. “Maybe you have to come at it from a different angle, and see that the true value of the arts is in people’s wellbeing, in having empathy for others.

“Alan Ayckbourn once said said that art has to be as important as the NHS because, ‘if I’m going to get better, what am I going to get better for?’.

“Art will also always ask ‘why should I care about something’, holding up a mirror to the world, as Hamlet does, as the world without the mirror becomes a very selfish place. We’re already bearing witness to the cost of a lack of cultural engagement by people.”

Damian has always championed such cultural engagement and will continue to do so, still living in York and taking his artistic directorship of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre for James Cundall’s Lunchbox Theatrical Productions to its next stage of expansion.

“I’ll do other things too, but it’ll take me into next year to think about what I really want to do. I’m still interested in community plays and community projects and it might change how I do it now because I’m not running a theatre building any more.”

York Theatre Royal presents Swallows And Amazons, tomorrow until August 24. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Charles Hutchinson