The National Theatre’s child-friendly Christmas offering of ‘Treasure Island’ is impressive and polished, but lacks originality. Director Polly Findlay successfully delivers Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic to a new generation, and the adaptation is in the safe hands of Bryony Lavery, but it would be inaccurate to describe the production as ground breaking.
Traditionally an all male cast, Lavery introduces some token women to the adventure story, however, it is surely patronising to suggest this alone makes her capable adaptation noteworthy. In the twenty first century, a National Theatre production should make such alterations as a matter of course. Commending Lavery and Findlay for merely respecting that the world has moved on since the 19th Century seems misplaced. Yet, aside from the gender change of Jim (here, ‘Jemima’) Hawkins and the inclusion of several female pirates, it seems that Lavery’s adaptation lacks creativity. It is a refined and expert piece, but no less is to be expected of the National Theatre, and one might hope for greater novelty.
Patsy Ferran, as Jemima ‘Jim’ Hawkins, is a gifted narrator who draws each child, and their parents, in with remarkable animation. The stand-out actor of the play, Ferran, brings a vibrancy that serves to counteract the somewhat overly rehearsed feel of Findlay’s direction and it is thrilling to see Ferran’s star rise so quickly. Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is insufficiently frightening, and this is a common theme among the cast. For a show which markets itself for ages 10+, the characterisation was disappointing and the obvious scope for Silver and his gang to be almost nightmare-inducing appears to have been ignored. Lavery creates a number of new characters, but these fail to strike the balance between clichéd and complex successfully, resulting in an ultimately forgettable larger chorus of pirates.
It stops just short of managing a two tiered appeal for an audience of adults and children, unlike last year’s ‘Emile and the Detectives.’ Children laugh a great deal at the cheese-related jokes, squealed by Joshua James’ Ben Gunn, but the same jokes cause accompanying adults to cringe. Equally child-friendly and a rare streak of visual originality, was the nimbly operated robotic parrot, Captain Flint, a blaze of colour that ricochets through the audience. Lizzie Clachan’s design is beautiful, making full use of the Olivier’s extraordinary technical resources, but even this is predictable. The set bears more than passing resemblance to that of previous Christmas production ‘Nation’. It’s most exciting feature is an array of small lights suspended from the ceiling, detailing the stars in the night’s sky, which are lit up during the performance to illustrate the characters’ discussions.
Findlay and her team’s show is handled skilfully, but to expect any less of a National Theatre piece would be condescending, and it is one of their more forgettable Christmas productions.
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