Robert Louis Stevenson described his book Treasure Island as, ‘a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing’. It’s an outlook typical of its time, and the resulting story is a lively and charming Victorian coming-of-age adventure.
So how then, to create a production that captures the spirit of the original while appealing to a modern Birmingham REP family audience? This particular adaptation is written by the highly respected playwright Bryony Lavery. Lavery has taken a feminist slant on Treasure Island, with the protagonist Jim and a number of other main characters played by women.
Jim being played by a girl rather than a boy makes less difference than you might think. You just immediately accept it; in fact, the play mentions it more times that it really needs to. As Jim says when continually asked about her gender in the first act: “That be my business”.
Apart from its use of gender, Lavery’s stage adaptation doesn’t stray too far from Stevenson’s book. This isn’t always a good thing. For example, on a number of occasions Jim steps out of a scene to take on the role of narrator, describing the action as if the character is still in the novel. These narrative passages are never insightful or necessary; the audience, even with children in it, should be trusted to understand what’s happening on stage.
Another issue is the pacing. This is a long play – three hours including the interval. Too much time is spent on exposition in the first act, which takes place at Jim’s inn and features a succession of mumbling characters having dull exchanges. Unfortunately it’s symptomatic of the rest of the production; it lacks drama and tension. There are some loud bangs that make you jump and some gruesome injuries that make you recoil, but there are no real moments of wonder.
Directed by Philip Breen, this production of Treasure Island works best when it’s concentrating on being fun – utilising the cast’s musical talents in the songs or using the REP’s floor for some neat visual tricks.
There are some nice comic performances too: Dave Fishley, who plays the sailor Gray, steals all of the scenes he’s in. Gray’s running joke is that he is so dull that he’s continually forgotten by his crewmates, though of course it works to his advantage in the end. And Thomas Pickles’ off-kilter, Gollum-inspired performance as Ben Gunn is the highlight of the second half.
Sometimes, however, the more serious elements of the show, such as the numerous, sometimes quite unpleasant deaths, are played too much for laughs. I’m not expecting a Tarantino-style dark atmosphere to a family Christmas show, but there needs to be some feeling of jeopardy. The parrot, Captain Flint, is probably the scariest character in the production and he’s a puppet.
Emotions too are downplayed and oversimplified. Jim and ‘Long John’ Silver’s ambiguous relationship should be at the heart of the play, but it isn’t given the stage time to develop. Consequently, the inevitable betrayal lacks emotional punch.
Perhaps I’m just not invested enough because I didn’t read the book as a child. The lady sitting next to me did and we discuss the differences between the play and the book in the interval. “I would have liked this new version when I was a girl”, she says.
So if the girls in the audience watch this Treasure Island and feel inspired by an adventurous, outgoing role model then I’ll happily forgive what is a fun, but ultimately unsatisfying, production.
Treasure Island runs at the Birmingham REP from 25th November 2016 to 7th January 2017. For direct event information, including performance times and online tickets sales, click here.
For more from the Birmingham REP, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk