Review: Treasure Island, National Theatre

“Thanks for all the pies and adventures”

The big family-oriented show at the National Theatre this winter is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (though as it runs in rep right through to April, one hopes Spring will have sprung by then) which has been adapted for the stage by Bryony Lavery. But whilst Polly Findlay’s production has some very definite plus points, not least in an inspired design by Lizzie Clachan which utilises so much of the Olivier’s potential, it doesn’t quite have the full shiver-me-timbers factor to make it an undoubted success.

Clachan frames the theatre’s large revolving drum with a set of lowering curved ribs which suggest all kinds of mystical maritime adventures – the frame of a trusty ship, the ribcage of a giant whale, the quivering trees of a strange island. Deep in the revolve is where the real treasure is though, a warren of cabins that reflect the social hierarchy of the time and later on the maze of tunnels in which the gold can be found. Combined with the sensational starry skyscape up above, Bruno Poet’s lighting looking stunning, this is the National doing what it does so well.

Which makes it a shame that the drama just isn’t that dramatic. Lavery’s adaptation is full of innovation – some inspired, turning Jim Hawkins into Jemima and making Dr Livesey a woman too; some less so, the puzzling prevalence of bearded ladies – but the filleting of the novel into a play never really captures sufficient magic to make it truly light up the stage. Indeed it relies a little too heavily on previous knowledge which is dangerous considering the target audience and there are stretches of the production that consequently fall close to the perfunctory.

But there are real highlights too, especially Patsy Ferran’s androgynous Jim whose inquisitive sprightliness is a real boon and a quietly commanding central presence. Helena Lymbery’s doctor has a lovely warmth about her and Joshua James’ wild boy Ben Gunn is a kinetic, cheese-obsessed, thrill as he toys with the pirates who left him behind. Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is a suave surprise – perhaps lacking some of villainous charisma one might associate with the role but convincing much more as someone who could insinuate his way into impressionable minds.

I also really liked Tim Samuels’ Grey, a rare character of sustained comedy whose dull monotony causes everyone to constantly forget about him. But feeling grateful for these few opportunities to laugh is symptomatic of a production that hasn’t quite nailed it, the freedom of its gender-blind casting aside. Likewise with John Tams’ shanties sung by Roger Wilson, only rarely do they feel an emotionally connected part of the show – the most effective sequence coming in the strangely rushed final scene that has an unfortunate abruptness to it. We may need to dig deeper for real treasure.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 8th April

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