As Swallows and Amazons opens at York Theatre Royal we talk to its young star Laura Soper

Laura Soper in reherasals for Swallows and Amazons at York Theatre Royal. (Picture: Anthony Robling).Laura Soper in reherasals for Swallows and Amazons at York Theatre Royal. (Picture: Anthony Robling).
Laura Soper in reherasals for Swallows and Amazons at York Theatre Royal. (Picture: Anthony Robling).
Any theatre production, no matter the scale, is a big deal for those involved.

The summer production of Swallows and Amazons at York Theatre Royal is, then, special for the whole company, but it is particularly significant for two of those involved.

The first is the director, Damian Cruden.

After 22 years as the artistic director of York Theatre Royal, Cruden is stepping down and his swansong production is this musical.

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Laura with fellow cast members. (Anthony Robling).Laura with fellow cast members. (Anthony Robling).
Laura with fellow cast members. (Anthony Robling).

Cruden has been a fine servant of both the city and its main producing theatre for over two decades.

A man who has a socialist’s heart has always put the needs of the city and its theatre above his own.

When given the opportunity, he speaks out passionately at the funding crisis the arts has faced in Britain for some time now – the last time we spoke, as he pulled together the Shakespeare’s 
Rose season for the ancient city, he was in typically flag-waving mode.

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Co-director Damian Cruden in rehearsals for Swallows and Amazons.  (Picture: Anthony Robling).Co-director Damian Cruden in rehearsals for Swallows and Amazons.  (Picture: Anthony Robling).
Co-director Damian Cruden in rehearsals for Swallows and Amazons. (Picture: Anthony Robling).

He told me how underfunding the arts was worse than not funding it at all, because it forces theatres across the land to self- inflict deaths by a thousand cuts.

However, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, he has continued to strive and continued to bring world- beating theatre to the visitors and residents of York.

Memorably, his production of The Railway Children travelled from the National Railway Museum to London and Canada, taking the name of York Theatre Royal with it every step of the 

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His productions of The Wind in the Willows, which saw the mainhouse stage transformed to an in-the-round setting and Peter Pan were big hits with audiences.

The time has now arrived for him to step down and he co-directs Swallows and Amazons with John R Wilkinson.

“I’m looking forward to working on this script with a talented group of artists, that my last show for York Theatre Royal is for families seems appropriate,” says Cruden.

I agree. He has brought a lot of joy to a lot of family audiences with his visionary leadership in the past 22 years. So, the summer 2019 production is a big one 
for outgoing artistic director Cruden.

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It is also a pretty big deal for Laura Soper. She will be appearing on the stage for the umpteenth time – having been a member of the youth theatre group she appeared in Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan – but she’ll be appearing on the stage of York Theatre Royal for the first time as a professional actor.

“Doing my first professional show here since I graduated and for it to be Swallows and Amazons feels amazing. It feels like such a treat,” she says.

Soper graduated from Bristol Old Vic theatre school two years ago, the alma mater of Olivia Colman and Daniel Day Lewis, among others. She has worked since, of course, but coming back to the venue where she was involved in youth theatre is a special homecoming. “I came to youth theatre quite late, considering that you can come here from the age of five,” she says. “I was 14 and I was really very shy, but my parents both worked and I needed something to do during the school holidays. I got sent to different drama clubs – my parents are really into opera, so I had always been around the arts and that seemed like a logical thing to do.

“Because I was nervous, I actually held back for a few years, but then one year I just decided to go for it. I was so glad I did, being in the youth theatre was an amazing experience.”

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There will be lots of young people involved in youth theatre – in York and across the county – who will have the same dreams as Soper when she first arrived at York Theatre Royal. That she turned her ambition into a reality shouldn’t be underestimated.

“I came to realise that this world was for me. My years in the Youth Theatre were such an influential chapter of my life and the opportunities were amazing.”

She says a significant aspect 
of being involved was that she ‘made wonderful friends and 
had great fun in this important step in my becoming a professional actor’.

She also had the opportunity to be directed by Damian Cruden in those early productions, the same director she’s working with now as a fully trained professional.

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“My aspirations were taken seriously, I was constantly being pushed with new challenges and was given the most amazing opportunities to perform in professional productions which was such invaluable work experience.

“I feel so lucky to have been a part of it and it’s lovely to be back in the place where everything became possible.”

She returns to the theatre for a musical version of Arthur Ransome’s story with music for this version written and composed by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy.

She will also be rehearsing as the only professional in the cast of the Youth Theatre’s summer production Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson. She has already started aerial training – on hoops – with aerial choreographer Jen Parry at High Hoops studio in Deighton.

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“It will be a challenge physically. I’m new to the whole circus thing but it’s great to have the opportunity to learn something new,” she says.

“And, of course, it’s really nice to be working with the Youth Theatre again.”

Children’s classic

Swallows and Amazons: The story of the Walker and Blackett children’s adventurous school holiday in the Lake District as they set sail for adventure. The Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger – sail to Wildcat Island and meet Nancy and Peggy, the self-proclaimed Amazon Pirates, and the dastardly Captain Flint. York Theatre Royal, to August 24.

Bestselling author Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather, adapted by Emma Reeves, comes to the main stage in a York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre production from August 30 to September 1.

Tickets for both from the box office on 01904 550149.