It’s hard to make a play or movie that appeals to both adults and children. The language needs to be accessible but not patronising, the characters playful not caricatured, and the plot fanciful but not ridiculous. This is a masterful balance that Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) has gotten just right in his family-friendly classic novel Treasure Island.
A tale of buccaneering life on the high seas has long been an appetising concept (think The Pirates of Penzance to Pirates of the Caribbean) for young and old, with the thrill of adventure and danger a constant source of great excitement and drama.
Broadcast around the world from London’s prestigious National Theatre (an exciting initiative known as NT Live) comes a story of money and mutiny, brought to life in a fun new adaptation by Bryony Lavery on the stylishly versatile Olivier Theatre stage.
Androgynous twenty-something Patsy Ferran leads a mismatched ensemble as fresh-faced protagonist Jim Hawkins, the plucky young granddaughter of a struggling innkeeper. Much to the disapproval of her witty but protective grandmother (Gillian Hanna), Jim’s desire for adventure sees her embroiled in a thrilling but perilous treasure hunt.
She finds a friend and confidante in the mysterious Long John Silver (doe-eyed Arthur Darvill of Doctor Who and Broadchurch fame), a one-legged seaman that may or may not be the nightmarish pirate the legends speak of. On his shoulder sits a devilish rainbow parrot named Captain Flint – the name being an ode to John’s wicked former captain on the Walrus, and burier of the elusive treasure he now seeks – who hisses the infamous “pieces of eight” quote throughout the play.
Behind the swashbuckling camaraderie and character eccentricities, director Polly Findlay’s Treasure Island still contains the dark but subtle messages of the original text. There are issues or trust, disloyalty and murder, and not to mention predatory tendencies enhanced by the chemistry between John and the now female Jim. She is underage, and although nothing eventuates from her relationship with John, there are definite moments of unease and sexual tension between the two.
Hidden meanings for adults aside, the energy on the stage is palpable, and this is mostly down to designer Lizzie Clachan’s extraordinary set. From beneath the seemingly solid wood plank stage, the legendary ship the Hispaniola heaves up and down to the motions, intricately dressed on every level from the deck all the way up to the billowing sail on the gantry.
Ropes and ladders swing from rickety heights and huge boney pillars arch towards centre stage like ribs. The overall effect is an almost steampunk aesthetic, always changing under a midnight blue sky of artificial stars. Violin accompanied Gaelic folk songs and chants are effectively scattered throughout sung by shanty singer Roger Wilson as the actors re-stage their set between scenes.
Treasure Island is impressive in elegantly displaying an equilibrium between gruesome comedy and family-friendly drama. For the kids, the characters are frightful I’m sure, but for the adults, they never quite threaten enough (especially Darvill, whose Long John Silver dresses the part with Jack Sparrow-esque eyes and hair, but looks too young and sweet to truly terrify). The interaction between characters is inconsistent, but the banter is hilarious enough to overshadow this.
Nick Fletcher is a stand-out as pompous idiot Squire Trelawney, and Tim Samuels has epic comic timing as the dreary and pitiful Grey. Beefy pirate-wannabe Red Ruth (Heather Dutton) revels in the fat jokes with her talk of pudding and pie, whilst ex-cabin boy Ben Gunn (Joshua James) is purely for the kids, with Gollum-like interactions with himself and an incessant craving for cheese.
Treasure Island is a slick production. The characters are likeable, the dialogue laughable and the set remarkable. A gem for both the young and young-at-heart.
Treasure Island has a strictly limited run at Cinema Nova and Palace Brighton Bay.