Writer: Bryony Lavery, from the book by Robert Louis Stevenson
Director: Phillip Breen
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
As Robert Louis Stevenson said of Treasure Island, “it [is] a story for boys … women were excluded”, and its cast of characters certainly bears that out. But history also tells us that 18th-century women did do physical work and were even pirates. It is from this standpoint that writer and adaptor Bryony Lavery has started – recasting self-effacing hero Jim as a girl, albeit in breeches, and recasting some of the characters – for example, Dr Livesey – as women as well as introducing new female characters. Lavery’s pen has taken the spirit of Treasure Island and given it a contemporary twist with plenty of humour amid the adventure and tongue firmly in cheek at times. The result is a play that the whole family can enjoy, one that is full of unexpected twists and fun.
Jim and her grandmother find a treasure map after the death of Billy Bones, an eccentric and, frankly, scary guest at their inn. Inspired by the idea of treasure, Jim and other locals set off to sail to Treasure Island. But Squire Trelawney, a vain, pompous, self-important man, cannot maintain discretion and it seems everyone knows their quest, leading them, all unknowing, to hire a pirate crew, including the cook and leader of the pirates, the one-legged Long John Silver. He leads a mutiny as the seekers go ashore and mayhem ensues.
Lavery has taken Stevenson’s tale and rounded many of the characters as well as introducing new ones. It is maybe slow to get going – the events in the Admiral Benbow feel as if they take too long to recount – but once it does it barely pauses for breath. The large Birmingham REP stage is used to its full and filled with music from the actor-musicians and movement, for example in the numerous fight sequences. And the cast takes to it with gusto.
Sarah Middleton’s Jim, our narrator, is quite perfect in the role. Slightly perplexed as to the grown-ups’ behaviour, she has a strong moral compass and some beautifully funny asides to the audience. Her puzzlement at becoming a heroine and her determination to behave like one are particularly well drawn.
The moral ambiguity of Long John Silver is clear as played by Michael Hodgson. He is believable both when befriending Jim and when chilling leading his erstwhile shipmates. Hodgson brings a ruthlessness and determination to Silver that is really rather unsettling. His parrot, Captain Flint, is brought to glorious life through the puppetry skills of Suzanne Nixon.
Tonderai Munyevu as Squire Trelawney brings welcome light relief while Siân Howard provides a thoroughly dependable Dr Livesey. Together these make a great double act.
Among the more minor characters, Thomas Pickles’ Ben Gunn is wild-eyed and funny. He brings a great physicality to the role, skilfully avoiding going over the top. Dave Fishley takes the dual roles of Billy Bones and Grey. As Billy Bones, he fills the stage with menace as he calls for ever more grog, a truly unpredictable and unsettling character. Later, as Grey, he is quite the opposite. Much comedic mileage is made that Grey is essentially invisible, although he is ultimately able to turn that to his advantage.
With such an array of larger-than-life characters, the production could easily become pantomimic, but, despite there being some elements inspired by that form, the sure directorial hand of Phillip Breen ensures it does not cross that line.
A touch long at almost three hours including the interval, there is much to like about this often charming recasting of Stevenson’s tale, and the children present at press night certainly didn’t seem to be struggling with its length. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a better introduction to theatre, a splendid alternative to more traditional Christmas fare.
Runs until 7 January 2017 | Image: Pete Le May