Monday, 29 December 2014

'Treasure Island' at the National Theatre

My post-Christmas treat was a visit to see 'Treasure Island' at the National Theatre. My history with 'Treasure Island' goes back 40 years or so ago when I first read Robert Louis Stevenson's book about the adventures of young Jim Hawkins and the pirates. Robert Newton immortalised Long John Silver in the definitive film version of the book. For some reason it's considered a children's book but it wasn't written as such. I rediscovered the book a few years ago and fell in love with it all over again, with it's swashbuckling on the high seas and hunting for pirate treasure. Yo ho ho me hearties!

This version was written by Bryony Lavery, using the key elements of the book but adapting it to make an intriguing stage play. So, for example, Jim becomes Jemima in a change that worried me when I heard about it but it works very well. It's not a literal translation of the book onto the stage but it's pretty close in many respects.

I always assume that everyone reads this book when young but I heard one theatre-goer behind me say that he'd never read it so I'll briefly outline the story of the play…

Young Jim Hawkins and her grandmother run an inn on the south coast and are visited by Bill Bones who pays in advance for lodgings, food and rum. He's visited by Black Dog and then by Blind Pew, both wanting old Flint's treasure map, and Blind Pew throws the black spot at Bones and he dies. Jim has the map and takes it to Squire Trelawney and the Doctor who decide to go treasure-hunting themselves. The Squire buys a ship and hires a crew that includes many of Long John Silver's former crewmates as well as Silver himself and off they sail. When they reach the island the crew mutinies but the Squire, Doctor and Jim escape with the loyal crew and the map. Jim meets Ben Gunn who was the cabin boy on Flint's ship but was left ashore when it sailed away and he's gone mad since he hasn't seen anyone in three years. O, and he likes cheese (especially toasted if you have any). Battle and wily shenanigans take place between the pirates and the Squire's people and, of course, the Squire's side wins and sails back to Britain rich as Croesus and jolly pleased with themselves.

So there you are, the bare bones of the greatest pirate story ever but you really need to see it to experience the full story. The stage is a major character in itself, transforming from an old inn to a galleon with three levels and then into the mist-shrounded desert island. It's great what they can do with a simple stage these days and I was mighty impressed with its flexibility and ability to transform from one thing into another. And the lighting was pretty good too, atmospheric and haunting and, every now and then, the lighting extended out into the ceiling of the auditorium above the audience to show the constellations of stars the pirates use to sail by. It was all terribly well done.

The cast were top notch as well, with Patsy Ferran as our heroine Jim and Arthur Darvill as Long John Silver. Arthur played Long John as charming and cunning by turns, a clever pirate who can turn every eventuality to his own good. The only problem I had was that he didn't look like Long John or, indeed, a pirate. He should've been heavier and older and he didn't really have a peg-leg at all, just some 'wood' strapped to one leg that he referred to as his new leg. But I can forgive that because he did, at least, have a parrot on his shoulder some of the time.

I also quite liked Nick Fletcher as the bombastic squire with the loud mouth and Daniel Coonan as Black Dog who allows the prisoners to escape on the island by getting drunk on grog. They were all good really, and all great fun in their own, often dastardly, way.

I was looking forward to seeing this on stage and spent the morning with my pirate scarf tied round my head. Would I be disappointed like with 'White Christmas' the week before? Don't get your hopes up, I told myself, but I couldn't help it. Luckily I loved the production! It brought magic and wonder in its wake as it sailed the seas of the Olivier stage, and that's exactly what we need at this darkest time of the year in London.

The audience was a curious mix of older people who clearly love the book and parents (and some grandparents) bringing their children to see the play as a Christmas outing. I hope it worked its magic on those young eyes and shone a light on them to make them begin to love theatre. They might be the audiences of the future.

My major complaint was that there were no bottles of rum or grog to swig from at half time and no grog flavoured ice-cream. What an opportunity missed!

Oo ar Jim lad, let's have a rousing chorus of '15 men on a dead man's chest, yo ho ho and a bootle of rum!' Strike the sails and let's set off for an adventure on an island where X really does mark the spot...

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