Writer: Robert Louis Stevenson
Adaptor and director: Theresa Heskins
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Artistic director Theresa Heskins writes in her programme notes that after consultation with focus groups of children as to what should be on their stage at Christmas the overwhelming consensus involved pirates, treasure and fights. And so, bowing to popular opinion, Treasure Island is in full production as this year’s Christmas show.
And this is a full production in every sense: company, cast, music, song, production values, gold doubloons and pirate accents. The New Vic always pull out the stops for their annual family show and this is no exception as the cast and creative team transport us from Liverpool Docks halfway around the world and back again aboard The Hispaniola. Young Gem Hawkins has the adventure of a lifetime after inadvertently getting mixed up in the world of skulduggery and cutlasses after discovering a map on the corpse of the frightful Captain Flint. Very soon aboard ship in disguise she must negotiate her way through mutinous pirates led by one-legged Long John Silver who will double cross anyone to get his hands on the fortune where x marks the spot.
From the opening number in the Admiral Benbow public-house, flooded in colour by Daniella Beattie’s lighting design, this is going to be a rollicking adventure. Special praise must also be given to the stunning projection of the treasure map on the theatre floor every time it is unfurled. It is almost like we fall into the map itself. James Atherton’s rock ‘n’ roll score gives the production a feel of (for those with young children watching TV) Jake and the Neverland Pirates – that is to say a pirate just as much at home with an eye patch and headscarf as they are picking up an electric guitar or playing the drums. These are a very cool motley crew and we don’t need much encouragement at the start of the second half into being pressganged during their Pirate Takeover opener.
But here lies some of the problems in trying to adapt Treasure Island for the stage. We have a clear protagonist in Gem but what, or who, she is fighting against is less clear and can become a bit of a muddle for children and adults. The narrative twists as double mutinies take place, villains fall in and out favour, and a large array of characters including Ben Gunn, Captain Flint, and Long John Silver dilute a universal goal. Yes, the goal might be finding the treasure but who does that belong to and who deserves it is never resolved. Faithful to the novel perhaps but confusing to children who are waving pirate flags in the audience yet supposed to be rooting for Gem.
The cast of actor/musicians take no prisoners and are let off the lead. As Gem, Nisa Cole is beautifully wide-eyed, innocent and an exceptionally fast runner as she sprints around the auditorium. All of the acting is ‘large’ – a conscious choice by cast and director I’m sure – perfect for the ridiculous bunch of swashbuckling pirates but perhaps a little misguided for the small and vulnerable Gem. As grog drinking stereotypical seafarers Lauryn Reading, Eleanor Toms and Gareth Cassidy (who seems to have had a year of being a professional pirate after playing a similar role in Lancaster Duke’s production this summer) have tremendous amounts of fun picking up instruments and stomping their way around the stage. This is anchored down by Tom Peter’s Long John Silver who, albeit with the obligatory peg leg, parrot and west country accent, plays this complicated character without bluster but with rising menace which gives him much more of an unpredictable quality. Backed by The New Vic’s young company it is a pleasure to see the stage filled with bodies at several parts in the show.
Treasure Island has everything you would expect from this theatre’s in-house team that has produced such fantastic shows over the last decade. It is a loud show in every sense and perhaps not suitable for very young children but if you want to go on a voyage, treasure map in hand with a bunch of pirates with a rock amp then hoist the sails.
Runs Until 27th Jan 2018 | Image: Andrew Billington