Islander – Southwark Playhouse, London

Book: Stewart Melton

Director: Amy Draper

Music and Lyrics: Finn Anderson

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

An exciting burst of sound, folklore and danger tells the story of an island under threat, about to be torn apart for the second time in its history. Blending reality and mythic fantasy, the musical calls back to a time when stories and imagination were the way to make sense of a tough and changing world and in looking back allows us to look at our current world with a more understanding eye.

Eilidh is a young girl on a small Scottish island, living with her gran and the remaining handful of locals. They’re under threat from forces on the mainland who have both starved the islanders of investment, and want to rehome them off the island now they can’t support themselves. With this tension in the air, Eilidh finds Arran on her beach – a few days after a whale calf dies after becoming stranded there. Is Arran a member of the “finnfolk”, a semi-fairy race who live on a mist-covered island that split from Eilidh’s own long ago? Or is she something imagined ina time of collected stress.

This mythmaking and theme of outsider danger is both wildly contemporary and beautifully traditional. Today’s remote islands, like each generation before them, face dangers outside the control of inhabitants. Invaders, hardships and isolation are not new, and Islanders neatly draws a link through time from when fairy stories, religion and ritual provided reasons and succour to today’s money, connectivity and community. Arran’s story of belonging to a people of whale shepherds is a pleasing one, reminding us that there are still people who connect to the world in a natural, rather than exploitative or incidental way.

For the work itself, neat turns of phrase act as brambles on a woollen jumper to grab attention for a moment before letting the story continue – ‘landsick’ as an illness for someone who has constantly been at sea and suddenly finds themselves on solid ground. The music comes completely from the voices of the two actors, Bethany Tennick as Eilidh and Kirsty Findlay as Arran (with each playing a few other roles on top). Mixing layers of singing and vocal soundings to create rich folk style pieces, the variety and near flawless execution of Finn Anderson’s music bring us to a place away from our darkened theatre to somewhere windswept, wet and ancient. Playing around with accent and island dialect cements the feeling of a culture clash – tradition and modernity, reality and legend.

The characters are as you may expect in a folk story – a little thin, acting as cyphers for the bigger picture. The technical device of multiple looped snippets of sound is an entertaining novelty but starts to get, apologies, a little repetitive. Characters float in and out, many with little reason or resolution. Overall, a lovely modern fairy tale – quick with important messages for anyone who cares about a traditional way of living, or indeed, anyone who cares about a good story well told.

Runs until 26 October 2019 | Image: contributed

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