Writer Tim Firth
Director Henry Bell
Designer Lucy Weller
Reviewer Ron Simpson
Last year’s starry West End revival of Neville’s Island was, in general, not at all well received. Henry Bell’s production for the Stephen Joseph Theatre (where it all began in 1992) proves that it works far better not as a vehicle for known comedians, but as an ensemble piece dependent on mutually supportive teamwork.
However, it remains an odd play, rather unpleasant in the glib way it deals with some of the darker corners of the human psyche, very funny in its comic succession of disasters, not really convincing in the characters’ reaction to them. What starts as a jolly night at the theatre (and, to be fair, a very jolly one indeed) turns into a dark night of the soul without letting go of the jollity. The master of that kind of duality is, of course, the man who first commissioned Neville’s Island, Alan Ayckbourn; the young Tim Firth’s highly theatrical foray into difficult territory is somewhat uneasy at times.
Neville’s Island depends upon the unlikely idea that four modern men can be isolated on an island in Derwentwater with no one aware that they are there; Tim Firth lays the ground neatly with believable reasons for lack of mobile phones, etc. They are four middle managers from different departments of a firm in the North of England and they are taking part in one of those dreadful team-building weekends (usually not quite as dreadful as this). Their capacity for incompetence is unlimited, from going in the wrong direction to hitting a rock in their boat to throwing the sausage (that is their sole sustenance) into the water. Gradually the comedy is overshadowed by the possibility of killer-beasts on the prowl and growing insanity within the group, neither remotely credible, though the quality of the acting gives some power to the latter.
The four characters are not only contrasted, but, in some cases, naturally antagonistic. Firth goes beyond types, though they can be defined that way, and has a nice line in idiosyncrasy. It is perhaps unfortunate, or maybe just realistic, that the most consistent and entertaining character should be revealed as more unpleasant – and, ultimately, more pathetic – with every scene. Gordon is one of those unfortunates whose selfishness is so imbedded that every act of other people is seen in relation to himself – and in this situation most of the acts bring disaster! Craig Cheetham’s glower becomes ever deeper, penetrating even his gait, though he gets full value from the vicious wit of the character. John Last’s uxorious and desperately middle-class Angus, with his endless supply of top-of-the-range survival equipment and total inability to survive, projects a much more likeable brand of selfishness.
The other two parts are problematic. The rôle of Roy, recently returned from a psychological breakdown and now apparently in the grip of religious mania, is increasingly melodramatic. Jamie Chapman resists all temptation to go over the top and keeps some kind of a tenuous grip on reality while tackling the more fantastic scenes head on. Daniel Crowder is outstanding as a character who seems to change gear early on. Neville appears as a rather pompous Boy Scout leader who always pursues the cleverly cryptic rather than the straightforwardly factual, but soon becomes nothing more than a nice guy trying hopelessly to find solutions and worrying about other people – and Crowder makes niceness theatrical!
Henry Bell’s production is immaculately timed and paced while Lucy Weller’s rather restrained designs at least ensure a splashy start and a good look-out tree.
Runs until: 27th August 2015