Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Theatre Review: Treasure Island

Dullsville, snoozefest and megayawn aren’t words I would usually associate with a trip to the theatre. I mean obviously they’re not words I particularly associate with anything because they’re not actually words, but you get my point.

They’re also not words I would tend to associate with Treasure Island, that classic of the swashbuckling, Boy’s Own Adventure genre. Treasure Island is a fun, exciting story. It’s got sword fights, buried treasure, mystery upon mystery and the archetypal pirate in its iconic anti-hero Long John Silver. It’s also my third favourite* Muppets movie, but that’s probably not that important right now.

It’s a real shame, and an almost impressive feat, then that the one word that best sums up the National Theatre’s new production of Treasure Island is: boring.

Adapted from Robert Louis Stephenson’s original text with no particular flair by Bryony Lavery, the production is so flat you could use it as a coffee table and it’s difficult to explain precisely why. For me, probably the biggest problem is one of scale. The production feels like it’s designed to be intimate in some respects, but any impact that this may have had is lost on the cavernous Olivier theatre stage. In the big set piece sequences, such as Long John Silver's mutiny, the lighting, sound effects and set (of which more later) are epic and huge; the on-stage action tiny and safe. It’s jarring and instantly sucks the life out of the story as you sit and wonder what these huge effects are introducing, then realise sadly that whatever was supposed to have happened already has.

A major contributor to this sense of smallness is the cast. Now I loved Rory off of Doctor Who as much as anyone else, but Arthur Darvill is woefully miscast as Long John Silver. Having neither the presence to play a traditional buccaneer pirate nor the swagger to play a more modern Jack Sparrow type (which I think is what he was going for), his Silver just sort of disappears into the scenery, instantly robbing the play of its narrative force. I'm not sure what having a female Jim Hawkins (or a female Doctor Livesey for that matter) is supposed to add to the story but Patsy Ferran is by no means strong enough to carry the show either. Everyone else in the company is fine, but it’s difficult for a supporting cast who don’t really have anything to support! As a result, there's very much a sense of 'going through the motions' in places where there really needs to be high drama. The mutiny is again a prime example of this, and contains some of the least exciting sword fighting you'll ever see. In Act 2, Joshua James offers a glimpse of life as a pleasingly mad and antsy Ben Gunn and there’s a nice turn from Lena Kaur as Silent Sue who gives her one line some real emotional force. Other than that, it's slim pickings for anyone looking for the kind of great acting that usually graces the Olivier stage.

The tweaks made to the text, such as they are, don’t add anything at all to the story. As mentioned, the changing of gender of several key characters is an uninteresting distraction, as is the occasional knowing and unsubtle joke about pensions or some other contemporary issue, presumably inserted to give the grown ups in the audience a chuckle that their kids don’t understand. If they were funny I wouldn't mind, but…

The one bright spot in the production is the incredible set. I've never seen the Olivier stage’s huge revolve used to such fantastic effect as it is in this show. It transforms from Jim’s country inn, to the docks, to a two tier Hispaniola complete with sails and rigging, to a two tier island complete with caves and tunnels. It’s stunning to watch and it’s stunning to think of the technical expertise that must go on behind the scenes. It really does need to be seen rather than described to appreciate, and is probably the only reason I'd recommend anyone going out of their way to see this show. There are some extremely effective sound and lighting effects too - especially during the Act 1 storm sequence - and a very clever use of light bulbs suspended over the audience to portray the night sky. Also worth mentioning is Captain Flint, Silver’s ever present parrot, who is either a puppet or an animatronic (I couldn't work out which) but either way the most fun performance of the piece.

So there we go, a production at the National that I didn’t like. I suppose it had to happen eventually. It is probably worth saying, though, that this is one of the NT’s famous family shows and as such I'm probably about twenty years older than the target audience; certainly the kids in the audience seemed to be enjoying it more than me. Perhaps the conclusion is go and see this should if you're eight.

Treasure Island opens on December 10th and runs until April - in rep - in the Olivier theatre at the NT.

*My favourite Muppet film is obviously A Muppet Christmas Carol, followed by The Muppets (from 2011).

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