To paraphrase Cole Porter: another ev'nin', another show... This time it was back to the ever-welcome comfort of the Olivier stalls to see the latest in the National Theatre's Christmas productions based on literary children's books. However this year Robert Louis Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND has been given a particular female twist.
The production is directed by Polly Findlay and the adaptation by Bryony Lavery has reassigned Jim Hawkins to being a girl along with sex changes for Dr. Livesey and several pirates.
To be honest I was dreading what had been done to the story - revisionism for -isms sake? - but after a short while I didn't notice the gender shifts. I guess it's all about finding the right actress to play the role rather than doing it for the role's sake and they have found the perfect actress to play plucky Jim in Patsy Ferran.
After impressing in her West End debut earlier this year as the gauche servant Edith in BLITHE SPIRIT, here she is a natural centre of attention with her sly wit and bright personality. What a year she has had!
Actually she gives such a winning performance that she quite pulls the focus from Arthur Darvill as the show's famous villain Long John Silver. Playing against the stereotypical representation of the character, Darvill's Silver is a cunning, sly adversary who easily infiltrates himself among the crew aboard Squire Trelawney's ship which sets out to find the titular island. His performance is in keeping with the 'ensemble' feel of the show - but damn it all, this *is* the Olivier stage, an easy place to get lost if you are not flashing the bottle a bit.
Apart from Gillian Hanna as Jim's sparky Innkeeper grandmother, the cast are by and large anonymous although I liked Nick Fletcher's egotistical Squire and Tim Samuels as the aptly-named Grey, a sailor so anonymous the pirates forget to tie him up with the others.
There is also a great animatronic parrot playing Silver's ever-watchful Captain Flint which steals scenes easier than any pirate.
The National has also called again on it's favourite folk composer John
Tams whose songs are atmospheric enough to give you a flavour of shanties
heard through a dense fog. Dan Jones' score and in particular his chilly soundscape help conjure the mood too.
The other big plus for the production is Lizzie Clachan's ingenious set which uses the Olivier revolve well, none more so than when the Squire's ship, the Hispaniola, rises majestically into view from what had been the desolate Inn minutes before. The large curved plinths that surround the stage are also an excellent design choice suggesting both the bare bones of a ship's hull... and just bare bones!
Looking back, my only real annoyance was Lavery's overuse of archaic poetical speech patterns for Jim which sometimes pulled the focus away from the actual play and character. Also, oddly enough for a show that succeeded so well with the onstage mise-en-scene, the occasional use of lighting cues above the audience to suggest the parrot's flight were usually mis-timed and a bit confusing. This was also the case with the final effect - what should have been a haunting 'button' actually was a bit of a clunker.
But I was surprised how much I enjoyed the show and the good news is that Treasure Island fan and secret pirate king Owen was hugely impressed with it.
New Year ahoy!