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Treasure Island

by on 18 December 2019

Cutlasses Out

Treasure Island

by Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Bryony Lavery

Putney Theatre Company at Putney Arts Theatre until 22nd December

Review by Andrew Lawston

Jim Hawkins goes to sea in search of buried treasure, and discovers storms, mutiny, pirates, and adventure. From Tim Curry brandishing his cutlass through a horde of Muppets, to Monkey Island computer games, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has been constantly adapted, reinterpreted, and reimagined since its first publication in 1882. Tonight it’s the turn of Putney Arts Theatre, in Bryony Lavery’s adaptation. Directed by Emma Miles and Angharad Ormond, the show makes effective use of cross-casting to assemble a confident and polished production that alternates between suspenseful drama and broad comedy, without ever quite veering into pantomime.

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Stevenson’s adventure novel invented many of the tropes we’ve long come to associate with pirates and their grog-swigging, parrot-perching, treasure-burying, map-making ways, and this production embraces them unashamedly. The foyer has been dressed as an island, with a pre-show magician, live music, and there’s grog sold at the bar by a front of house team who are in costume and setting the mood wonderfully. Barney Hart-Dyke’s set is largely empty, except for a platform at the back, and a map of the island spread across the stage. Violinist Stan Stanley plays a long medley of sea shanties as the audience shuffles in.

As the lights go down and Jim springs to her feet to relate her life story, the cast quickly and effectively assemble the Admiral Benbow Inn from a few wooden barrels, pewter tankards and a door frame. Later on, the same simple set elements will be reconfigured into a coach, and the Hispaniola. This device has been well used over the years, but the ensemble really sell the illusion with slick, energetic, and confident scene changes.

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As visitors start to arrive at the Admiral Benbow, Live Foley Paul Graves starts to come into his own at his desk on stage left. While initially limited to providing sound effects for the inn’s bell for each new arrival, he quickly begins to steal the show with the sound of swords being drawn, bubbling mud, storms, tin skulls, and more.

The Admiral Benbow’s denizens are a lively bunch, from the charmingly surreal comedy of Grandma Hawkins (Ally Staddon) and Mrs Crossley (Chris Routledge) to tavern regulars Red Ruth, Job Anderson, Lucky Micky, and Silent Sue (Marie-Jose Fulgence, Michael Otim-Okot, Jeff Graves, and Loetitia Delais respectively). Black Cove life is presided over by Ben Kynaston’s splendidly pompous and clueless Squire Trelawney, and rather more severely by Carrie Cable’s gruff and fatalistic Doctor Livesey.

TreasureIslePromo1When the pirates show up: Vanessa Cutts as Billy Bones, and Sharon Czudak as Black Dog, the action begins in earnest. The first of many fights, arranged by Richard Kirby and Lindsay Rovan, ranges across the whole playing area as the two buccaneers fence with cutlasses. When the terrifying Blind Pew appears (Kim Dyas in a brief but imposing performance), however, it becomes clear that Treasure Island has an inherent problem with tone. It’s a family show, and the audience’s ages range tonight from eight to eighty, but alongside a great deal of humour and larks, there’s also a high body count. While Miles and Ormond have sensibly decided not to employ lashings of fake blood, the action stays true to the book’s occasionally brutal violence. As a result, there’s the occasional awkward moment where a character has their throat cut on stage only to have a comedy sailor step over their corpse to get on with the next bit of fun a few moments later.

In general, the directors have addressed the uneven tone of their material by playing the text as written. The comedy scenes, of which there are many, are played for laughs, and very successfully. During the serious or violent moments, everything is a lot quieter and more controlled.

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Although the story is traditionally viewed as a coming of age adventure for young Jim Hawkins (gamely played with gusto and energy here by Flavia Di Saverio, who carries the show, and provides a spirited point of identification for the audience’s younger members), the limelight is of course hijacked by the one-legged pirate-turned-chef-turned-pirate, Long John Silver. One of the most famous and distinctive characters in literature, this larger-than-life buccaneer demands a charismatic performance, and Charlie Golding more than rises to the challenge. His Silver is often quiet and calculating, with an easy charm. It’s easy to believe both in his friendship with Jim, and in his ruthless streak even when dealing with his own crew. Rather than the traditional “peg leg”, Long John Silver struts the stage in “the finest wooden leg in Brizzle”, a splendid steampunk-style prosthetic prop that allows him to move with real speed and menace.

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Silver is of course accompanied by the malevolent parrot, Captain Flint. Flint is depicted here through a wonderful wooden puppet created by Isaac Insley and Mae Fletcher, and operated by Alexa Adam, complete with punctuating squawks. As a puppeteer forced to cover the whole stage, often at some speed, Alexa sensibly doesn’t attempt to remain invisible, but all eyes were riveted on the parrot itself throughout.

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The rest of the pirates, cutting a dash in splendid costumes, are a wonderfully menacing group from their first entrance: Israel Hands, Dick the Dandy, Killigrew the King, and Joan the Goat (Miguel Bernal-Merino, Michael Maitland, Carlos Fain-Binda and Ally Staddon again) form a great contrast with the carefully anonymous but very likeable Grey (Harrison Chadwick). David Kelly’s blustering but dignified Captain Smollett forms a striking contrast with the pirates and amateur sailors from Black Cove.

TreasureIslePromo2Once the Hispaniola reaches its destination, Act 2 opens with a bang, with an introduction to the island’s sole inhabitant, Ben Gunn. Wilf Walsworth’s performance as the abandoned cabin boy is glorious, taking in aspects of King Lear’s Poor Tom, Lord of the Rings’s Gollum, and any number of Monty Python hermits. Flavia Di Saverio’s Jim is particularly effective with Ben, as they discuss cheese, friendship, and buried treasure.

Although the programme notes that Putney Arts Theatre doesn’t have quite the resources of the National Theatre, finds inventive solutions to characters swimming, diving into underground tunnel networks, storms at sea, and more. The designers’ ingenuity seems to have been stretched to the limit throughout. The scenes in which characters are finally seeking the actual treasure are the only point at which you can see that they could really have benefitted from a trapdoor.

With wonderful sea shanties from Rosie Hayes and Stan Stanley, there’s plenty of music in Treasure Island, but this isn’t a pantomime. For families with slightly older children, however, this is a great production of a classic story, with likeable leads, and plenty of visual spectacle, that feels right at home in the festive season. The performance is slick and confident, and endlessly enjoyable. No black spots required!

Andrew Lawston
December 2019

Photography by Benjamin Copping

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