YO HO HO – PIRATES AND PARROTS ON A DEAD MAN’S CHEST
The first thing to say is that the sets are extraordinary: magnificent, nightmarish, romantic. Lizzie Clachan makes dramatic use of the Olivier’s great revolving, rising, falling drum.The stage becomes a cutaway three-tier ship, a bleak starlit ocean, a heaving volcanic swamp. And as in last year’s wonderful Emil and the Detectives, it is good to see all this top-flight theatre magic laid out for the young in a ‘family’ show, instead of shunting the kids into some low-budget folktale posh-panto round the back.
The second thing to say is that if you are taking children – or indeed, as I did, an baffled adult companion unfamiliar with Robert Louis Stevenson – you would be wise to bring them up to speed first. Bryony Lavery is a seasoned creator and adaptor, and Polly Findlay, on her second NT outing displays the same gift for shock and sincerity as in Antigone. But both seem to take for granted a universal familiarity with the tale of Treasure Island. Although Lavery often uses Jim Hawkins as a narrator, particularly in the first half the script fails to hammer home with sufficient vigour certain vital plot points, especially when the Hispaniola is being crewed by disguised ex-pirates and future mutineers. I was fine with it, my companion less so. HOWEVER – the pre-Christmas scramble meant that it was a penultimate preview I saw unofficially (bought own tickets) and there have been improvements since: don’t trust me on that. But do refresh the children’s minds about Treasure Island anyway.
Jim, by the way, is a girl: a bright-eyed urchin in britches (the excellent Patsy Ferran), and the gender-change is wittily handled in one of the best of the cod-18c lines. Billy Bones staggers brutally to the Admiral Benbow and roars “Be you boy or be you girl?”. Jemima-Jim replies “That be my business!”. Very 21c . A good few of the pirates are female too, which is fine; though it is the men who, with roaring Roger Wilson and his fiddle leading, fall into deep-toned, thrilling chanties from time to time. The parrot’s pretty good too, especially when it goes AWOL and flits, we genuinely believe, around our heads in the auditorium.
Arthur Darvill is a beguilingly slimy, dangerously likeable Long John Silver – an uncharacteristically quiet scene where he explains star navigation to Jim is magical – and among the pirates the one really good joke character is Tim Samuels as Grey, a rather Richard-Beanish figure whose problem is that nobody ever notices he’s there (shades of Mr Cellophane). On the island the pirates forget to tie him up, he’s so insignificant.That’s witty.
But for all that it is a remarkably dark show: literally – the lights are never bright, even in tropical sunshine, and the great looming ribs of the ship become part of the island’s ghostly nightmare as its very earth bubbles and swells horribly. Joshua James’ emaciated crazy Ben Gunn erupts from mud and dives down into filthy tunnels, moody half-heard music spreads unease. In one prolonged death scene a nervous child was led out, hands over his ears: the lightness of the victim’s “Thank you for the pies and the adventure” gasps the bloodied victim didn’t quite do it for that child. Indeed for all its tremendous physical spectacle – and final romantic beauty as the great ship flies homeward – the production seems unsure whether it is a ripping yarn or a meditation on brutality and nightmare. Actually, don’t listen to me. Children are better at blood-and-thunder than I am these days. And it’s far better than an action movie.
box office 0207 452 3000 to 8 April
live relay in cinemas NT Live 22 Jan
Sponsor: Royal Bank of Canada