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

AND so Damian Cruden sails off after 22 years of adventures at York Theatre Royal, seemingly forever battling funding cuts and governmental preference for science over art, rather than Arthur Ransome's Amazons or "barbarians".

The last show of his often ground-breaking artistic directorship is a co-production with artistic associate John R. Wilkinson, in a summer when already he has overseen Shakespeare's Rose Theatre's eight productions in York and at Blenheim Palace in his new artistic director's post.

Cruden finishes with one of his favourite innovations in the Theatre Royal calendar, the summer family show in the main house (with accompanying children's activities in the foyer).

His last such show, 2017's Robin Hood: The Arrow Of Destiny, had been a costly misfire, destined to flop at the box office. Last summer's hit, The Secret Garden, had first bloomed at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake, guest-directed in York by Liz Stevenson from the lakeland show.

Swallows And Amazons, a Lake District tale as it happens, is almost on a par with that magical production. A play with music, rather than an out-and-out musical, it was premiered in 2010 at the Bristol Old Vic with its headline attraction of music by the ever elegant, eloquent, mischievously humoured Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, a songwriter surely always ripe for musical theatre in the Flanders & Swann and Stiles & Drewe mode, with even a pinch of Sondheim salt and Randy Newman pepper.

Laura Soper, a York actress back on her home-city stage for the first time as a professional in the role of sensible, practical Susan, describes Hannon's score "as so rich and yummy", a yoghurt image but true all the same.

Performed by Cruden and Wilkinson's company of nine actor-musicians on myriad instruments, from euphonium to violin to cello and glockenspiel, under Kieran Buckeridge's typically joyous musical direction from the keyboards, the mellifluous songs are but one pleasure of this summer holiday drama for children and grown-up children alike.

Adapted for the stage with brio by Helen Edmundson, in a lovely marriage of storytelling and brisk action, with plenty of room still for a child's imagination to roam, Ransome's story tells of the Walker and Blackett children’s adventurous school holiday in the Lake District in August 1929, when mothers could let children have such adventures without fear.

The roles are played by young adults as children, restless to start growing up. The Walkers are middle-class, pucker, calling mother "Mother": stern captain John, 12 (Alex Wingfield); serious Susan (Soper), fearless Titty (Hanna Khogali) and up-for-a-fight Roger, almost eight (William Pennington).

The Amazons, sisters Nancy and Peggy (Anne-Marie Piazza and Rachel Hammond), are punkish northerners, free spirited, rougher, tougher and funny. The contrast works a treat; all excel, not least when improvising sailing boats.

Buckeridge delights as outwardly grumpy writer Uncle Jim, the dastardly Captain Flint of the piece; Ellen Chivers is lovely Mother and more besides; bushy-bearded multi-instrumentalist Ed Thorpe goes about his scene-stealing business as a taciturn farmer and grouchy policeman. Playing an euphonium to mirror a cow's moo is a particular favourite.

Katie Sykes's costumes evoke a bygone era just so; her set designs are playful: a slither of water; a jetty that pulls apart to form the Captain's house boat, and behind a vast painted expanse of Lakes water and rising hills. Richard G Jones's lighting, for both bright days and dark nights, is superb; Yvonne Gilbert's sound design is suitably thunderous; Puppets for Peas' wiry cormorants play their part too.

And so, farewell Damian Cruden; what a Theatre Royal adventure you have led. Thank you and bon voyage.