Writer: Robert Louis Stevenson
Adaptors: Isobel McArthur with Michael John McCarthy
Directors: Isobel McArthur and Gareth Nicholls
Ask most people to name a book written by Robert Louis Stevenson and they will probably say Treasure Island. But ask them to name another, and they will probably say The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ah, but press them for a third, and they might come up with Kidnapped. Yes, Kidnapped is a distant bronze when it comes to the works of the great Scot, at least as far as its standing in modern culture is concerned. However, this makes it ripe for rediscovery, or in the case of this National Theatre of Scotland production, a completely off-the-wall reinvention.
Kidnapped is a Scottish-set tale of adventure written in 1886, so it stands to reason that you would open a stage adaptation of it with a country and western song. And that you would start act two with an underwater musical number performed by a little mermaid. And that along the way you would encounter a pirate crew that would not be out of place in a panto version of Peter Pan, visit a Vegas-style casino in a cave in the Highlands, and be regaled with numerous modern songs performed with gusto by the exceptionally talented cast. And yet none of these things rank as this production’s boldest move – which is in fact to make this ripping yarn into a love story.
Kidnapped has poor orphan Davie Balfour (Ryan J MacKay) encountering all sorts of misadventures as he is betrayed by a duplicitous uncle, press-ganged onto a ship bound for America, becomes part of a mutiny and a shipwreck, is implicated in a murder and travels all over Scotland looking for refuge. The one positive that Davie finds in all of this is the presence of the adventurous Alan Breck Stewart (Malcolm Cumming), and a strong bond of friendship develops between them – or at least that’s how they feel toward each other in the original book and all subsequent adaptations. Isobel McArthur and Michael John McCarthy’s version however makes their bond a lot deeper, and not just in subtext. This is unashamedly a romantic love story between two men, and it works amazingly well. The beats of the relationship perfectly match those of a modern day rom-com: a meet-cute, getting to know each other, falling out, a betrayal, reconciliation and a bitter-sweet ending. It’s almost as if Stevenson wrote the story with this in mind (and who is to say he didn’t?).
McArthur and McCarthy’s script is endlessly inventive and wildly witty, as is the direction by McArthur and Gareth Nicholls. Stevenson’s plot may be a trifle predictable, but what this company adds to this production is far from that. This is a joyously funny and colourful piece that aims to entertain, and hits a genuine bulls-eye, while also delivering a real emotional depth when required. The fun extends to Anna Orton’s fun (and only partially historically accurate) costumes and set, Tim Reid and Zofia Chamienia’s amusing projected animations, and the entire cast’s obvious massive talent and enthusiasm for their work.
Apart from MacKay and Cumming as Davie and Alan, almost all of the rest of the amazing ten-strong company play multiple roles. The other exception to this is Kim Ismay who portrays Francis Van de Grift Osbourne, aka Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife. This remarkable woman was apparently instrumental in much of Stevenson’s works and was a writer herself. McArthur’s programme notes suggest that Frannie’s real life was one of great adventure and had a lot of parallels with the plot of Kidnapped – so much so that this adaptation has Frannie telling her own story alongside that of the fictional plot. Neither narrator nor Greek chorus, Frannie’s appearances don’t really add much to the story, nor do they really gel with it. However thanks to the fantastic script, direction, and Ismay’s superb performance, presence and singing voice, these barely-relevant interjections are still very welcome when they come.
National Theatre of Scotland has assembled a ridiculously talented set of people and produced a ridiculously entertaining production that revels in its ridiculousness. And frankly, it’s ridiculous not to go and see it.
Runs until 13th May 2023