Theatre review – Treasure Island at the National Theatre

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Opening in December as the theatre’s seasonal family production, it’s taken me a while to get around to seeing Treasure Island. It’s a classic story that most people in Britain seem to be familiar with, even if you haven’t read it and a story of pirates and hidden treasure on a mysterious island seemed like a winner. I was therefore surprised to see quite a number of seats empty at last night’s performance in the Olivier. On watching the production, there’s certainly aspects to enjoy, but perhaps the show lacks an added sparkle.

First and foremost, the set and staging by Lizzie Clachan is utterly fantastic. The Olivier’s drum revolve stage is used to its maximum effect, as we see Jim Hawkins’s journey by ship to the island. In one scene, the drum revolve rises to reveal multiple levels of the ship’s interior, like a cross section of life at sea – the captain’s room, kitchen and lots of others humming with activity. It was an impressive moment that only the Olivier stage could capture and I almost applauded such an achievement. The island is also effectively created, both above ground and below, as the hunt for treasure continues.

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Lizzie Clachan’s sets are the star of the show.

There are also some lovely moments and performances. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Silver shows Jim the constellations above them, which appear within the bulb lighting in the ceiling, giving a magical atmosphere. The stand out performances for me were Joshua James’s Ben Gunn, who after three years alone on the island has resorted to having conversations with himself, in Gollum-esque fashion and Tim Samuels, who is also particularly funny as shipman Grey, so dull that no one seems to remember he is even there and his deadpan references to this certainly achieve the most laughter.

In this adaptation by Bryony Lavery, the role of Jim Hawkins is played by Patsy Ferran. This is only her third professional role after making her debut in Blithe Spirit last year as the put upon maid (who, for me, was the highlight of some scenes in that show) and she is certainly a talent to watch over the next few years. She is very good as Hawkins, able to carry scenes and connect well with the audience as Hawkins tells the story of Treasure Island. Although I’m all for gender switching when done well, I did find the constant references to her as Jim, but then calling her a girl distracting. Every time it was said, it took me out of the play as my brain couldn’t help getting confused. It may have been designed as a joke to keep it until the end to call her her full name Jemima (shortened to Jim), but I’d have found it far less distracting if that had been moved up front.

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Arthur Darvill as Silver & Patsy Ferran as Jim search for treasure with the crew.

Playing the iconic Long John Silver in the production is Arthur Darvill, last seen on stage in Once (a role I wish he’d stayed in longer as he was so good). I had been surprised by the casting, expecting an older, more frightening figure to play the infamous pirate. Darvill’s Silver is a more modern Jack Sparrow-esque figure and he is great at playing the more manipulative aspects of Silver, as he tricks the Squire in to hiring his crew and builds a friendship with Jim, only to try and locate the map. You can see why Jim would be drawn to him. However, as much as I enjoyed his performance, I did find myself feeling that Silver should be slightly more creepy and be more of a figure earning the description Jim gives him, as being the person of his and Ben Gunn’s nightmares. I didn’t really feel that from Darvill, but perhaps a younger audience would.

Overall, this was an enjoyable production, which is worth seeing and there are some good performances. However, perhaps the fact that the sets are the star of the show is part of the production’s problem and I did leave feeling that there had been some magic or sparkle missing that I can’t quite define – it was enjoyable, but lacking the magic of other family shows, such as Matilda.

Treasure Island continues its run at the National Theatre (Olivier Theatre) until 8th April. More information and ticket availability can be found on the website

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