Friday, 27 November 2009

Treasure Island - Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarbourgh

Treasure Island
Writer: Robert Louis Stevenson
Adaptor: Andrew Pollard
Director: Adam Sunderland
Reviewer: Richard T. Watson

At roughly forty minutes on each side of the interval, this Treasure Island is undeniably snappy. Northern Broadsides have been making successful forays into children's theatre for a while now – last year's Heidi – A Goat's Tale was nominated for the TMA Best Show for Children and Young People Award – and Treasure Island is the latest in this line, currently playing at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre.

For years, the Broadsides have had a reputation as a strong touring company who present gritty, no-nonsense versions of classic texts in a distinctly northern vernacular. Their hallmarks are the northern voice, minimal set, minimal technical wizardry and spades of live music. They like audiences to imagine locations and won't patronise them.

That, then, is Treasure Island's greatest strength: here is a show for children that takes its audience seriously. There's no painful attempt to start a piratical sing-a-long or to get the kids up onstage. Instead, the Broadsides tell their story as though their young audience is mature enough to handle just watching and being treated as sensible people. The schoolkids lap it up. Two especially sinister characters appear in puppet form, assembled in front of our eyes, so they're seen to be evil, but not scary. Blind Pew – one leg a crutch, the other a saw – is a particularly good one.

There's a lot of set for a Broadsides show; more than usual anyway. Their wardrobe and desk with drawers are used to great effect – hardly ever still, they keep this a fluid, fast-paced production that never lets the attention or interest wander. With rapid re-configuring of the set, the scene isn't allowed to be in one place for long, and becomes a bewildering variety of places. Meanwhile, across the back hang props on ropes, an ever-present reminder of the nautical theme.

Also crucial to that pace is the effortless multi-rolling of the five-strong cast. A Georgian wig and a stoop are the only physical differences between Leigh Symonds' Doctor Livsey and pirate Israel Hands, but there could be two different men onstage. Focusing on the notorious Long John Silver (rather than multi-rolling) David Tarkenter gives us an engagingly human villain, even as he schemes with honeyed guile worthy of a politician. Graeme Dalling's cabin boy hero, Jim Hawkins, may start off anaemic and a bit of a wet drip, but he perks up in the second half, gets some colour in his cheeks and finally convinces as the idealistic, eager lad who finds the map that reveals the location of that infamous treasure.

It's a well-known story, adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson by Andrew Pollard, awash with double-dealing and mutiny. What's interesting here is how the establishment figures (Doctor Livsey and Morgan George's Squire Trelawney) are seen to have no less honourable motives than Silver and his crew. It's a shame more isn't made of the possible unearthing of corruption and greed in the Georgian establishment (but maybe that's not the important point for a children's show, however seriously it treats its audience).

More importantly, it's a tale of action and adventure, subtly but effectively underscored by Jenni Molloy on double bass. Throughout, the actors commandeer instruments to play her music in the corners, which makes the whole thing that much more alive and raw. Live music is the most noticeable Broadside hallmark on display, unfortunately it sometimes overpowers these actors' voices – several of them working on their first Broadsides production.

Treasure Island might not be the magical success of Heidi, but it is a mature work, intelligently and capably told, pitched perfectly to its young admirers.

21Nov-5 Dec- Stephen Joseph Theatre, -Box office: 01723 370 541,
8 -19 December -Lawrence Batley Theatre-Box office: 01484 430 528,
22 December – 9 January-The Stables, Milton Keynes-Box office: 01908 280 800
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