REVIEW: Treasure Island, Olivier Theatre ✭✭✭

Treasure Island at the National Theatre

Treasure Island
Olivier Theatre
26 December 2014
3 Stars

They sit there at the edge of the Olivier stage. Behind them, the huge space is grey and black; huge arcs of wood suggest a seafaring vessel. Long John Silver is giving the cabin girl a lesson in longitude and latitude, how to steer by the stars. As he describes various star configurations, they appear in the top of the auditorium, magically, twinkling clearly as they would in a night sea sky. Blue lines trace out the constellations as Silver names them. The cabin girl's wonder is profound. You can hear the lightbulb click into light as she works out the theory and feel the way the stars and the sea are a rich part of Silver's life. There is no sound in the auditorium apart from Silver's voice; dozens of children are hushed in awe and excitement.

It's a magical moment of theatrical joy. And less than twenty minutes later, Silver is aiming his gun and trying to shoot the cabin girl with whom he has shared his experience and wisdom.

This is Polly Findlay's production of Bryony Lavery's adaptation of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson adventure ‘story for boys', Treasure Island, now playing at the Olivier Theatre. There were a lot of youngsters there tonight, but a lot of adults too. All seemed to have a nice time.

The moment that captivated everyone's imagination spectacularly occurred in Act Two, when the silly pirate, Israel Hands (a suitably garish turn from Angela de Castro) lights his pipe and casually discards the match, thereby exploding a gunpowder barrel. The sound was deafening and surprising – one moment Hands was there, the next gone completely with a Big Bang.

It's a risky moment in an otherwise quite tame production of what is, let's face it, a riveting tale of intrigue, double-dealing and murder – at least as told by Robert Louis Stevenson. For although there is blood, murder and even the exposed entrails of a murdered good guy, Findlay takes a soft approach to the darker side of the novel and the characters. Partly, this in inherent in Lavery's adaptation, but only partly. Lavery conveys, in compact form, much of the convoluted but exciting plot Stevenson laid out over hundreds of pages; there are necessary plot points omitted or changed, but the language is nicely authentic and it all canters along at page-turning pace.

It's Findlay who decides to play to boys and girls, to take the edge off the hardness of the story, to make it slightly more Peter Pan than Treasure Island. The feeling is whimsical rather than adventurous; a truly safe sense of wild adventure.

Central to this is Jim Hawkins, the pivotal character in the narrative. Findlay casts a girl, Patsy Ferran, in the role and changes the sex of the character – this Jim is a Jemima, called Jim by her grandmother. It's a most curious decision and it carries consequences. One is, obviously, that in a stroke the piece is more attractive to young girls. That would be an understandable call if the publicity for the production made this central change clear – but it does not.

The second, equally obviously, is that young boys will wonder why one of the most famous boys in literature has been turned into a girl. They have a point. What would happen if a stage adaptation of Little Women occurred and Jo became Joe?

The third, and far less obvious, a consequence of the gender change for Jim Hawkins is that some of the possible danger disappears immediately Jim is Jemima. A Jemima is in no danger of dying, no matter what the circumstances; a Jim could conceivably not make it. And the rough relationship between Jim and Long John Silver is fundamentally different when Jim is not a boy.

These matters all feed into Findlay's softer approach to this tale of buccaneers, lost treasure and skullduggery. Jim is not the only character whose gender is changed, but his change is the most significant. It's not that it is a bad or fatal choice – it is, however, a fundamental one. And it puts this Treasure Island firmly in the realm of children's theatre. No bad thing.

Patsy Ferran is quite wonderful as the inquisitive and almost fearless cabin girl. She is agile and awestruck in equal measure and is excellent at capturing the ambiguity in the relationship with Silver, a man she wants to respect but can't trust. She can radiate fear when needed – her emergence from the barrel of apples having overheard the traitor's talk is especially well done – and she easily finds the ingenious and instinctive aspects of the character. She manages well that half-adult half-eager pup time of life and her relationship with her Grandmother, Gillian Hanna (lovely, honest, salt-of-the-Earth), is convincing in every respect.

If you have read Treasure Island or pretty much any writing about Pirates, you will probably have a vision of Long John Silver as Bryn Terfel with a huge beard, flamboyant outfit and swords, knives and, possibly, a parrot perched on the shoulder. But if you know only Captain Sparrow from the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, then the Long John Silver here will be comprehensible entirely.

Lithe and muscular rather than bear-like and overpowering; wry and beguiling rather than frighteningly hypnotic; capable of humour drier than Bond's martini rather than blustery and booming; mean and cunning like a sewer rat rather than overtly vile and vicious; but a master swordsman, knowledgeable about all manner of things, not just stars and charting them, friendly and fiendish, with a quicksilver mind. This is the Long John Silver Arthur Darville so carefully and deliciously brings to life.

He is terrific. One of those actors who knows about pitch, pause and pace and can use his voice cleverly to evoke responses, create atmosphere. And he has remarkable eyes – always alive, signalling: widening in comprehension, narrowing in determination, levelled in white hot anger or astute evaluation. Comic, scary and completely whole, this is a splendid performance from Darville, rich, fruity and full of vigour.

Lizzie Clachan's detailed costume assists in the overall picture of Silver, and I liked the wooden leg especially. Of course, there is a marvellous parrot puppet as well, perched occasionally on Silver's shoulder, other times a lone agent, exotically colourful and, as operated by Ben Thompson, almost real. It speaks/squawks and sheds feathers in a riot of piratical complicity.

As Ben Gunn, the abandoned cabin boy who has been three years alone on Treasure Island, Joshua James is kitted out like a wild Lord of the Flies islander native, all mud-caked skin, makeshift loincloth, wild hair and camouflage face paint. At his best in the peculiar, as in funny, exchanges with himself as he evaluates courses of actions and probabilities, James is diverting enough. On the whole, however, he is too effete to make a memorable Gunn and he seems out of place in the wrong sense. Still, the youngsters enjoyed his ducking and diving through the mud marshes and tunnels of the island: it's a safe, accessible turn based on one of the most remarkable of Stevenson's wild characters.

There are other excellent performances: Tim Samuels gets every laugh possible as the aptly named Grey, the man who has grey skin, hair and clothing and blends into the greyness of the environment Clachan has settled on for the set. Samuels is perfect. Aidan Kelly makes a wondrously macabre Bill Bones; Helena Lymbery brings authenticity, pragmatism and style to the practical Dr Livesey; Oliver Birch is as menacing a Badger as he can be given the luxurious mane he has, a feast of black and white hair that explains his nickname; as Silent Sue, Lena Kaur is capable and loquacious, her wails of grief at the murder of her friend slicing through the light-heartedness. In grimy pink attire, and as undandy and vicious a casual murderer as you will find, David Langham paints a memorable portrait of Dick the Dandy.

Lizzie Clachan's set uses all of the length, breadth and depth of the Olivier space. She uses a basic configuration which involves a revolving stage and a set of wooden, curved “ribs” which evoke images of whales, beached and rotten on the shore, as well as the holds of seafaring vessels – the essence of sea adventures. Utilising all of the hydraulic facilities available, the set moves from poor Inn, to the deck and lower decks of the Hispaniola and finally to the fabled Treasure Island, with its marshy swamplands (replete with gigantic marsh bubbles that undulate ominously), subterranean tunnels and chambers of gold. This set is money well spent and inventively used.

There is excellent lighting from Bruno Poet, small intimate moments of great beauty and large set-pieces which work tremendously: the explosion which takes Hands in an instant is remarkable. Dan Jones' music /sound and John Tams' excellent original songs are compelling components of the overall experience.

The illusions from Chris Fisher are enchanting and effective; Bret Yount's fight sequences are genuinely thrilling and provide unexpected excitement.

This is not really Treasure Island – but it is an interesting reimagining of Treasure Island, adding a feminine spin and diluting the danger, changing relationships. It seemed to enjoy universal approval from the youngsters – so job done, Polly Findlay.

One can't help wondering, though, how a full-blooded version of Stevenson's classic “story for boys” might have played out today. Much better than this one suspects.

Treasure Island plays at the National Theatre until April 8, 2015

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