review of treasure island

By Paul Campion (to see the review of this show by remotegoat click here)

“Girls need adventures too, Mrs Hawkins”

 Just as Charles Dickens invented the modern idea of Christmas with ‘A Christmas Carol’, with ‘Treasure Island’ Robert Louis Stevenson pretty much invented the modern idea of pirates.  Parrots…wooden legs… tricorn hats… treasure maps marked with an ‘x’… swordfights…grog….they all featured in Stevenson’s original 1883 novel and continue to define all things piratical to this very day.

But ‘Treasure Island’ can also lay claim to another distinction: that of being the original and archetypal Boys’ Own Adventure Story.  However, in the hands of dramatist Bryony Lavery, it’s not ‘Boy’s Own’ anymore; girls are allowed to join in the fun too.

First seen at the National Theatre in 2014, Lavery’s inventive adaptation restores the gender balance by changing the sex of certain key characters. Thus Jim Hawkins, the hero of the piece, becomes the heroine (but still called Jim), the pirates Black Dog and George Badger also undergo gender alteration and we are even introduced to some bespoke female pirates like Silent Sue and the marvellously-named Joan the Goat.

Happily, this gender-bending gives Stevenson’s classic tale fresh impetus.  The thrill of the original story lay in seeing Jim Hawkins, a mere boy, holding his own and overcoming the treachery of dastardly adults. Here, the fact that Jim is a girl brings an extra edge to proceedings and makes her eventual triumph all the more exciting.

This was aided by Edie Nelson’s terrific central performance as Jim. Confident and commanding throughout, she deftly mixed vulnerability with bravado in one of the finest performances by a young actor I have ever seen at BLT.  Throughout the show Jim is described as “smart as paint” and in Nelson’s hands she certainly was.

There were strong performances elsewhere, too.  Robert Newton’s iconic Long John Silver in the 1950s film version has indelibly fixed the character in most people’s minds as a one-legged, eye-rolling, oh-arr-ing caricature.  James Mercer wisely avoided that territory, instead giving us a Silver who was charming, insidious (and thus more dangerous), displaying a dead-eyed ruthlessness as he brutally knifed the recalcitrant Killigrew from behind with a chillingly casual “Oops”.

Of course, Silver’s crew of scurvy swabs presents great opportunities for vivid characterisation and these were duly taken by all, particularly Roxana Graves who was clearly having the time of her life as Black Dog, BLT newcomer Tracy Bastin as the aforementioned Joan the Goat and Jessica Webb as George Badger, who also displayed impressive rope-climbing skills.  Their ‘scurviness’ was greatly enhanced – as was the whole show – by superb costuming and make-up from the team of Kerstin Beard, Ann Morgan, Kay Samways and Kate Francis.

This motley crew of villainy was nicely counterbalanced by assured performances from the ‘good guys’ of the piece, namely Bruce Wallace as the kindly Doctor Livesey, Paul Ackroyd as Captain Smollett and Alex Scotchbrook as Squire Trelawney.

Elsewhere, we found Jan Greenhough adding to her canon of batty but endearing characters as Grandma Hawkins; Heather Wain – as always – making the most of every bit of her role as Red Ruth and Peter Yolland raising a laugh as the hapless and constantly-overlooked Grey.

Another stand-out was Seamore Nelson’s energetic, cheese-obsessed and half-mad Benn Gunn, whose regular appearances from his hole in the ground (aka BLT’s sadly underused trap door) were accompanied by a strangely satisfying ‘gloop’ sound effect.

Speaking of sound, plaudits must also go to Tom Dignum who, besides turning in a suitably sinister Blind Pew, also composed most of the impressive incidental music. This combined to great effect with Emma Christmas’ lighting and Tony Jenner’s simple, flexible stage design to create a series of atmospheric tableaux.

Another ‘treasure’ was the realisation of Flint, Long John Silver’s Parrot –  ingeniously achieved by having a parrot ‘puppet’ expertly manoeuvred about the stage by Niamh Clark.  Simple, yet highly effective.

Returning to a musical theme, the idea of punctuating the action by having the whole cast launch into rousing sea shanties was striking and provided an usual break between scenes, however at times (at least on the night I went) the singing seemed a little hesitant from some of the cast.

Another quibble is that one or two of the more dramatic moments were strangely short on drama. For example, the pivotal scene where Jim hides in a barrel and overhears Silver and his crew plot mutiny might have been more suspenseful if we were able to see Jim’s terror – maybe by employing a cutaway barrel?  Also, the sword-fighting, while nicely choreographed, also seemed a little tentative in places – although the swords themselves definitely looked like they could do some damage!

But those are minor criticisms. Director Jane Buckland and her cast and crew are to be congratulated for a rousingly enjoyable ensemble show which brought BLT’s year to a tumultuous climax and breathed new life into a classic.