Culture critic Holly enjoys a new twist on a festive classic at the RSC.Written by Holly Reaney on 17th December 2017
Review: ‘Treasure Island’ at the Birmingham Rep
This year 'Treasure Island' is the Birmingham Rep's Christmas show. Prepare for some serious swashbuckling as Jim Hawkins and her motley crew set out on the quest to the infamous Treasure Island
Fascinated by pirates? Fancy an adventure? Then strap yourself to the mast of The Hispaniola and away we go! This year the Birmingham Rep’ festive spectacular is ‘Treasure Island’, adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic children’s novel by playwright Bryony Lavery. This innovative production reinvents Louis Stevenson’s much loved tale very cleverly, exploring new ideas whilst maintaining its timeless moral message.
“Although a female Jim may be difficult for some to understand, the fact that Jim is a girl highlights one of the key messages of this particular production: inclusivity
‘Treasure Island’ revolves around the life and adventures of one Jim Hawkins, who, through a series of unfortunate yet exciting events, finds herself on the quest to Treasure Island, following a map which will lead to an unimaginable hoard of treasure. Along the way she encounters Long John Silver and his fellow crew mates who mutinied three years ago from the good ship Walrus. What ensues is a thrilling tale of friendship, betrayal and adventure, where Jim finds out about the world, acts on her discoveries, makes mistakes and learns who she truly is in the process. Sarah Middleton’s portrayal of Jim, known as ‘Jemima’ to her grandmother, is electric. As our narrator throughout the course of the play, she creates a character that is energetic and expressive and extremely loveable. Although a female Jim may be difficult for some to understand, the fact that Jim is a girl highlights one of the key messages of this particular production: inclusivity. As Dr Livesy (Siân Howard), also originally a male character who is female in this production, says, “Girls need adventures too.” Jim learns far more through the joys, pitfalls and complications of her adventure than she ever would have done staying in the domestic sphere of her home, and develops into ‘a true, honest heroine’ who saves herself and her friends from the clutches of the perils of Treasure Island…
In addition to the superb acting talent of the cast, the rest of the production was outstanding. The stage at the Rep never fails to surprise me – it is always transformed into something completely unexpected. In ‘Treasure Island’ we saw the stage become The Hispaniola – I felt as though I was on that ship, and that I too was being tossed about in a storm. Mark Bailey’s set design was phenomenal. Characters would appear on stage from almost any angle, whether they swung onstage on a rope, or popped up out of the floor.
“casting a group of multi-talented actors who can sing sea shanties, dance, play musical instruments and still move the staging around in the process, is quite a theatrical feat. Yet the cast of ‘Treasure Island’ managed it with great aplomb
The performative transitions between scenes could have been complicated and stilted; casting a group of multi-talented actors who can sing sea shanties, dance, play musical instruments and still move the staging around in the process, is quite a theatrical feat. Yet the cast of ‘Treasure Island’ managed it with great aplomb, making the stage transitions an enjoyable feature of the performance and enhancing the whole production no end. Dyfan Jones’s musical direction was brilliant, as he adapted sea shanties to accompany the scene changes. Pete Ashmore, Greg Coulson, Ru Hamilton and Barnaby Southgate’s musical quartet was thoroughly enjoyable, as were the musical contributions from the rest of the cast. The final song of the show created a rousing and joyful finale, summarising the general mood of the entire performance.
“Jim shows the younger members of the audience that it is completely acceptable to distance yourself from behaviour that you are not comfortable with
‘Treasure Island’, although perhaps a little too scary for the smaller members of the audience, is a perfect show for children, teenagers and adults alike, as it gives several resonating messages. From the bare basics, it teaches us about the perils of greed, and the importance of friendship and family. Jim, as narrator, gives sharp and witty advice directly to the audience. At one point, having shown off about being in possession of the map to Treasure Island and promptly losing said map, she turns to us and says “I would counsel all present about bragging too soon.” Sarah Middleton’s timing is utter comic genius. The show goes further than simply these witty asides and, as is the purpose of theatre, stretches certain boundaries almost to the point of breaking; there is an uncomfortable moment where Long John Silver, an ambiguous enough character as it is, kisses Jim. After a pause, Jim steps out of the action and states “this is not the behaviour of a friend”. She uses her initiative and instinct to assess that the situation is “too grown up” for her, and removes herself from it. By doing so, Jim shows the younger members of the audience, of which there were plenty, that it is completely acceptable to distance yourself from behaviour that you are not comfortable with. Whilst I’m sure this has had mixed reactions, isn’t that the point of theatre? To adapt and subvert, to change characters genders, to alert us to other possible meanings? For this is something that this production of ‘Treasure Island’ has completely mastered.
A highly polished and mature production of a book that is so loved and so timeless; the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company have created a masterful performance that will appeal to all. ‘Treasure Island’ runs at the Rep until the 7th January. Catch Jim and her friends (and her enemies!) before this fantastic Christmas show sails away into the New Year.