sat 30/05/2020

Treasure Island, National Theatre at Home review - all aboard this thrilling adventure story | reviews, news & interviews

Treasure Island, National Theatre at Home review - all aboard this thrilling adventure story

Treasure Island, National Theatre at Home review - all aboard this thrilling adventure story

The remarkable Patsy Ferran anchors a creatively updated classic

Pieces of eight: Jemima Hawkins (Patsy Ferran) and Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill) go treasure hunting Johan Persson

Swaggering pirates, X marks the spot, a chattering parrot, “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum”? All present and correct.

Swaggering pirates, X marks the spot, a chattering parrot, “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum”? All present and correct. But Bryony Lavery’s winning 2014 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson for the National, directed by Polly Findlay, also features key updates and wonderfully creative ideas, plus a good blend of horror and humour. With a 10+ age recommendation, this lively two-hour piece is excellent lockdown family viewing.

Crucially, the production’s gender rebalancing makes this fun for all: Stevenson’s protagonist Jim Hawkins becomes a thrill-seeking, androgynous, “smart as paint” girl, inhabited by the remarkable Patsy Ferran. We begin in the West Coast inn where Hawkins lives with her grandmother following her parents’ death. There, sailor Billy Bones comes to lodge, passing on his terror of a one-legged pirate. And it’s not long before Hawkins meets the man himself, Captain Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill, pictured in the main image with Ferran).

Lavery wisely turns some of the creaky plot contrivances into winking gags, trusting that her audience can both chuckle at the reveals and still engage with the gripping yarn (which, by paying close attention, we can). It also keeps the story moving at a fair lick; the second that the dim Squire Trelawny has indicated to Silver that he’s in possession of the treasure map and lacking a crew, his wily companion makes said crew appear by whistling that piratical ditty. There is some necessary set-up to endure, but it’s all worthwhile for the voyage upon the Hispaniola.

Treasure Island, National TheatreThat vast ship is the real star here in Lizzie Clachan’s awe-inspiring set (pictured above). Like a great living organism, it’s slowly birthed: first huge curving ribs rise up to form the sides of the vessel, then swinging rope ladders are winched up and a massive fluttering sail descends from the heavens. Finally, the schooner’s deck, complete with steering wheel, rises to reveal a doll’s-house view of occupied cabins beneath – the opening up of a whole teeming world. In the second half, that structure becomes the noxious, lime-green island with looming wooden structures like the bones of fossilised monsters, and dripping underground caverns.

The production also has a lovely thematic runner involving the starry night sky, and how navigating it can lead Hawkins to expand her horizons. It’s the seductive Long John Silver who teaches her to read the firmament – the Olivier’s ceiling turned into a Planetarium – and to calculate latitude via the glittering constellations. Their early interactions have a charming ease, as the lonely Hawkins finds a semi-parental figure who understands her hunger for adventure (and, initially posing as the ship’s cook, also satisfies her literal hunger).

The coming-of-age aspect is deftly handled, giving a psychological dimension to this breathless plot. As Hawkins, Ferran perfectly occupies that space between child and adult, whether eagerly relaying her story, nimbly clambering up the ladders, moping dejectedly when dismissed by an elder, or gradually realising the complexity of a manipulative character like Silver, who can don another personality like a garment. There are times, however, when it would be better to let the action play out, rather than pausing for Hawkins’ commentary; it undercuts moments of jeopardy, like the pirates’ violent mutiny.

Treasure Island, National TheatreDarvill, playing a very different character to the beloved Rory from Doctor Who, is convincing as Silver’s silver-tongued alter ego, though needs more steel and command for his ruthless, murderous side. But his slippery ambivalence does match Stevenson’s suggestion that there’s both excitement and darkness in Hawkins’ passion for journeying, far from home. There are great turns from Aidan Kelly as the haunted Bill Bones, Nick Fletcher’s pompous Squire, Alexandra Maher’s no-nonsense Dr Livesey, and, in particular, Joshua James’s mud-caked, mentally wrecked Ben Gunn (pictured above with Ferran).

Bruno Poet’s dramatic lighting conveys the icy terror of a storm at sea and otherworldly haze of the island, while Dan Jones’s soundscape supplies the creaking deck and thrashing waves, and John Tams folk music has evocative harmonies and thumping drums. Clachan’s vivid costumes mix comfy knits with smart naval uniforms and piratical leather vests, plus a metal prosthetic leg for Silver (theres a grotesque fascination with various missing limbs and digits). The sword fighting is too studied, but the talking parrot is brilliantly realised. This playful production will make every viewer want to seek their own adventure – albeit an imaginative one until the end of lockdown.

@mkmswain

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