Monday, 29 December 2014

Theatre review: Treasure Island (National Theatre)

The National Theatre goes back to the classics for this year's big family show, with a new version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Orphaned Jim Hawkins (Patsy Ferran) and her Grandma (Gillian Hanna) run an inn whose only regular customer is Bill Bones (Aidan Kelly,) an ex-pirate raving about his fear of a one-legged man. When Bones is killed with all his bills still unpaid, they take their payment from his chest, where they also find a treasure map. The excitable Squire Trelawney (Nick Fletcher) finds out about Treasure Island and is soon leading Jim and Dr Livesey (Helena Lymbery) to Bristol to find a ship and crew to take them there. Jim remains wary of the one-legged man Bones warned her of, but after all many men lose a leg at sea, the mythical pirate captain couldn't possibly be her new friend, the ship's cook Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill.)

Bryony Lavery's adaptation is a bit of a gender-bending one, a female Jim (we eventually find out it's short for Jemima) and Dr Livesey joined by a few bearded ladies as well.

The real star of the production is Lizzie Clachan's set, framed by eerie rib-like beams from a smashed ship, and making creative use of the Drum revolve to gradually build the pirate ship. The reveal of the undergound tunnels is also nicely realised, and the swaying beams and bubbling sulphur pools of the island give it a personality and life of its own.

Elsewhere, though, Polly Findlay's production is decent but unmemorable. It tells its story efficiently but I never felt as if its energy levels ever quite came to life. The attempts at comedy fall rather flat, the only jokes that really land being the spectacular death of Israel Hands (Angela de Castro) and the running gag about Grey (Tim Samuels) being so grey nobody ever notices he's there. Things do pick up in the second act - if the ship is more spectacular, the island is more atmospheric, and Joshua James' cheese-fixated castaway Ben Gunn helps up the energy levels.

Darvill is something of a dandyish Long John Silver - Phill thought he was a bit too pretty and well-groomed for the role, although I think that's possibly the point: He's meant to be the charming and deceptive villain rather than the obvious monster. I guess that's the trouble when a fictional character becomes as famous as he is, you can't really double cross the audience like that. With a parrot operated by the National's go-to puppetmaster Ben Thompson, some surprisingly grisly death sequences to please the most gore-happy children, and Bruno Poet's lighting creating a stargazing sequence that, admittedly, probably works better from the Circle than from where we were sitting, there's plenty of ingredients here to make a hit. But for me the whole never quite came to life.

Treasure Island by Bryony Lavery, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, is booking in repertory until the 8th of April at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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