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Sheila’s Island

by on 28 April 2022

Comfort Zones

Sheila’s Island

by Tim Firth

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 30th April, then on tour until 14th May

Review by Daniel Wain

Billed as a “sparkling, sharp-witted new comedy akin to The Office meets Lord of the Flies meets Miranda”, this “world premiere production” is actually a rewrite of Tim Firth’s three-decade-old hit Neville’s Island.  The idea of making an all-female version of the original came from Joanna Read, director of Sheila’s Island and Chief Executive of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, where this production originally premiered back in February.

As Firth says in his programme note: “the weaponry may be different, but the reasons for combat are fundamental human frailties, insecurities and defensive mechanisms, common to us regardless of sex … the ways that the adult humans react are, I think, as alive now as they were then, and as common to Sheila and her team as they are to Neville and his”.

That’s true enough.  Unlike, for example, Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, which was similarly gender-switched, Firth’s scenario is easily transferable from men to women.  Simon’s classic comedy lost much of its truth and rawness in translation (for instance, having the women meet to play Trivial Pursuit whereas the lads had gathered for a game of poker).  Firth’s set-up on the other hand works just as well for Sheila as for Neville.  However, both as original and variation, The Odd Couple is a far stronger and funnier play.  Sheila’s Island, while undoubtedly about ‘humans’ as opposed to just men or women, is a much tamer and thinner effort regardless of the gender of its protagonists.

The play focuses on four women (Sheila, Denise, Julie and Fay) embarked upon an ‘outward bound’ team-building weekend-gone-wrong.  Somehow, Marketing Manager Sheila has been elected team captain and has then, using her cryptic crossword-solving skills, managed to strand them on a small Derwentwater island.  As mobile phones die, and cold, hunger and night-time encroach, the luckless heroines are reduced to waving sparklers in a vain attempt to attract the attention of a passing party boat and then, next morning, to salvaging waterlogged slices of pizza deposited by said craft.

Firth himself acknowledges that it’s a “low-stakes situation with high-stakes emotion”.  He certainly delivers the former, but not necessarily the latter.  There’s simply no real ‘jeopardy’, as Hollywood scriptwriters would say.  The island is only 200 metres from the mainland and rescue is pretty much guaranteed.  The characters even lamely joke that this is less Lord of the Flies than Lord of the Files.

Firth’s subtitle ‘A Comedy in Thick Fog’ carries more shades of meaning than he maybe intended.  The play’s journey takes a while to get going, wanders off in various vague directions via mildly diverting japes, before, far too suddenly, reaching the end of the road.  There’s simply not enough substance to carry the story, the pace is uneven and the dialogue often clunky.  Things do get a little dark toward the end, but not for long and far too late in the play.

This might be expected, and forgiven, of a novice, but Firth is a highly experienced, hugely successful, award-winning writer.  He’s penned Calendar Girls (film, play and musical), Our House, The Band, The Flint Street Nativity and Kinky Boots, along with myriad other popular, high-profile hits.  Originally presented at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1992 and subsequently at Nottingham Playhouse and then in London’s West End in 1994, Neville’s Island was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Comedy, became an ITV movie starring Timothy Spall and Martin Clunes, has since been staged in translation all round the world and indeed has been in almost continuous production ever since its premiere.  Reconfigured as Sheila’s Island though, it appears worn, dated and actually a little lazy.  Firth even recycles his own ‘front bottom’ gag from Calendar Girls.

The original commissioner of Neville’s Island at Scarborough was Alan Ayckbourn, who championed the young Firth and was a clear inspiration.  The formulaic plot and superficial characters here though are poor relations to those of the Master, and much of the dialogue is below par-Bennett: uxorious Julie is tortured by the thought of her husband having sex on a shelf at Aldi, “pounding away on the multigrain”.  Sheila’s Island is the theatrical equivalent of a long-lasting loaf: convenient, commercial, just-about-edible, aimed at the mass market and not too nourishing nor nutritious.

Firth and Read, and indeed the audience, are partly saved by having a capable company of accomplished comic actors on-board.  The quartet play together in more than decent harmony, bouncing brickbats, banter and banalities between them with bravado.  Just as their characters are forced to improvise with whatever they find in their backpacks (a rescue flag being made out of a plastic plate and toasting fork), the actors ransack their own armouries for every trick, tool and technique to inject sense and verve.

Abigail Thaw’s dry, acerbic Denise and Rina Fatania’s volatile and needy Julie, who carries an entire Millets store in her backpack, get the best lines and so most of the laughs.  Thaw has considerable comic timing, delivering her zingers with downmarket Maggie Smithian aplomb, while Fatania, though tending to overplay her hand at times, is highly entertaining and energising.

Loveable, lost-the-plot Fay is the conduit for the play’s severely rationed semi-tragic elements, and Sara Crowe makes the most of this somewhat underwritten and underdeveloped role.  A “Christian in a cagoule”, who had a breakdown, took 13 months off work and found God, Crowe gives a touching portrayal, nicely balancing pathos, kookiness and deadpan verbal and physical comedy.

It might be called Sheila’s Island, but it’s certainly not Sheila’s play.  Judy Flynn draws the short straw with a cypher of a role: a distaff pastiche of Gordon Britass, the well-intentioned, hugely incompetent and irritatingly upbeat manager from The Brittas Empire, a TV series in which Flynn had far more fun playing the title character’s sarcastic secretary.  It’s an understated, very generous performance, allowing her cast-mates to chew the functional scenery designed by Liz Cooke, who does what she can with a tight tour schedule and even tighter budget.

The press blurb claims that “Sheila’s Island examines what lies beneath the superficiality of office relationships”.  Does it really?  We don’t learn any more about any of the characters from their ‘adventure’ than we would by observing them in a two hour-long board meeting.  Given the set-up, there’s a woeful lack of character development.  All four start as caricatures, and as the ‘jeopardy’ slowly steps up like a rusty slinky, they only retreat further into their stereotypes.  One could argue that Fay is reborn at the end, but she’s just as fragile and frankly bonkers as at first.  If anything, the show proves that every woman, or every man come to that, is indeed an island: their experience, ashore but adrift, doesn’t appear to build any bridges between them.

True, there is some heavier subject matter, which Firth refers to in his programme note (“mental health, suicide and caring for the long-term ill”), but it’s buried so deep that not even Julie’s bottomless toolbox of extraordinary equipment could find it.  When it does fleetingly appear, it’s largely unconvincing because everything has been so broadly comic beforehand.  So, for example, the sudden defenestration of Denise by Sheila jars uncomfortably, while providing no added insight into either.

Sheila’s Island never challenges its characters, cast or audience.  Sheila’s team might be shipwrecked in a vaguely alien place, but the play secures its audience in a very familiar one.  Resolutely middle-class, middle-aged and middle-management, it’s as safe as shopping at John Lewis.  It is mildly entertaining, with some amusing gags, and inoffensive enough.  It knows exactly what it’s trying to deliver and to whom.  In fact, it is so clearly calculated to be catnip to a certain demographic, that the enterprise smacks not a little of cynicism.

A huge positive is that it’s refreshing to see a play focused on four women, and also cheering to see such a talented quartet of female actors back on the road post-lockdown.  I only wish they had been gifted a less rickety vehicle which, in attempting to pass the latest MOT, has received a less than competent paint job.  Twelve Angry Women, anyone?

Daniel Wain, April 2022

Photography by Craig Fuller

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Not a play to be recommended then!

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