Outlying Islands – King’s Head Theatre, London

Writer: David Greig

Director: Jessica Lazar

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

The great appeal of David Greig’s Outlying Islands stems from its unpredictability. Audiences are left always uncertain as to whether they are watching a slapstick comedy, a brittle romance or a suspense thriller as the writer skirts around dramatic conventions with canny skill.

The play received its London premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in 2002 and this revival by the Atticist theatre company is the first time that it has been seen in the capital since then. Atticist’s last venture, Steven Berkoff’s East, also at the King’s Head, would seem more obviously suited to outlying Islington, but Greig’s refreshingly different play, set on an island 40 miles off the Scottish mainland, is no less welcome. The writer pits the forces of nature against those of civilisation and, along an undulating path, he wrestles with sub-themes that range from conservation to sexual awakening, biological warfare to Laurel and Hardy.

In the Summer of 1939, two young ornithologists are despatched by “the ministry” in faraway London in to count and study the island’s bird population. Robert (Tom Machell), from Cambridge, is confident and assumes the role of leader. He also boasts of his prowess as a ladies’ man. John (Jack McMillan), from Edinburgh, is uncertain and priggish, bound by the rules of polite society even in this untamed environment. For much of the early part of the play, the pair resemble Stan and Ollie, emulating their comedy routines, but, as the play gets progressively darker, they begin to look more like Leopold and Loeb.

Director Jessica Lazar’s engrossing, strongly atmospheric production manages the play’s rapidly shifting moods seemingly effortlessly. The audience envelops Anna Lewis’s craggy set and, enhanced by David Doyle’s lighting design, a disused chapel with a dodgy door becomes a place of mystery, where the natural world and the supernatural one feel equally unnerving.

As Robert and John tuck into their meal of puffin stew, Greig asks big questions. The time is specific and the play acknowledges that the start of World War II is imminent, but modern day battles to save our planet from manmade destruction are brought to mind and the validity of the unnatural constrictions forced on us by society are challenged. The writing is punchy, humorous and, at times, lyrical.

The island’s owner is the cantankerous Kirk (Ken Drury), whose sole interest lies in what money he can make from the government as a result of the ornithologists’ visit. His niece Ellen has seen Way Out West 37 times and the similarity between that film’s stars and the island’s new arrivals may make them more endearing to her. Rose Wardlaw completes a quartet of powerful performances, expressing suppressed emotions and leading us to suspect that Ellen’s outward naivety could be a mask for a much more worldly young woman.

Predictably, a love triangle involving Ellen and the ornithologists emerges, but like most other things in this play, it is unconventional and underpinned by deeper significance. This is a long overdue revival, given a production that never loosens its grip.

Runs until 2 February 2019 | Image: Clive Barda

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