Treasure Island: The Pirate Pantomime – Rotherhithe Playhouse, The Ship, London

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer and Director: Phil Wilmott

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, some middle-class men (landed gentry and professionals), having enticed a minor along with them, fall in with a bunch of dastardly criminals. After a lot of violence and treachery the RP speakers win the day and sail home with treasure. The rich get richer and the book gets on every school reading list. In Phil Wilmott’s Pirate Pantomime version, the plot is essentially the same.

There can be few settings more suitable than the tented courtyard of The Ship (a good stand-in for The Admiral Benbow where the story starts). The makeshift theatre is promisingly kitted out as a ship, with a rough wooden table at one end, a few wooden crates, and lanterns strung across the ceiling. A wooden barrier is moved from side to side as the ship sets sail. All the ensuing action takes place on the ship, so the story has to be heavily adapted, and some iconic scenes disappear altogether.

There is some (not inappropriate) pantomime-y acting, and occasional lines are forgotten, but Phil Wilmott directs a tight ship of team players. Following the coming-of-age spirit, though not the letter, of the book, Aidan Harris manages to grow Jim from uncertain youth to stony-willed leader. Hidden in the shadows, Ervis Cera skilfully operates and provides the inconvenient voice of Polly Flint the plush parrot. Oddly, the only women mentioned in the book are written out altogether; they are replaced with some doubtfully redoubtable lady lowlifes (and highlifes). Jan Olivia Hewitt – among other roles – is an imperious Betty Bones, demanding ‘an ensuite slop bucket’, and a suitably whingeing Gertie Gunn. Olivia Hewitt’s Lady Trelawney is a bit more dignified than the blustering squire of the book. When she finds out that Silver’s friends ‘are inebriated’, you feel that Something Will Have to be Done.

As the sparky ‘Doctor’ Lucinda Livesey (a polymath with gun skills) Megan Hansen is delightful, and she delivers a fine Abba tribute in the song Pirate Queens. Matthew Moore’s suave young Captain Smollett seems to have escaped from Bridgerton. He’s having a thing with Lucy Livesey – which is definitely not in the book and may be very upsetting for Jackie Trelawney. Then there is Old George, played by John Eccles, a solid comic presence who says little but looks plenty. Gwylim Lloyd is a thoroughly credible Long John Silver. He makes the character rather sadder than the cool operator of the original. When initially rejected by the captain, he panhandles the audience for the price of a cup of tea.

Treasure Island doesn’t lend itself to panto. For one thing, it’s not funny. This production is less hilarious than good-natured. The promised ‘salty seaside postcard fun’ is limited to ‘an old bra’ found in Betty Bones’ chest – and it’s quickly upstaged by a dead mouse. For another thing, it’s a tale of crossing, double-crossing and murder – difficult to render simply and not very festive either. Young audiences may be extremely confused by who’s got the treasure, and older audiences will be worrying about who’s got the guns. There is a pretend ghost scene (black sheets and bits of skeleton), which will terrify some children and infuriate others. The music is too loud – the lyrics may be quite clever but they’re impossible to hear. The audience are signed on as crew members, so physically they’re on board; emotionally they may not be.

Runs until 23 December 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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