Matthew Brown, Tom Micklem
Erskine Childers novel, The Riddle of the Sands, was written in 1903 to alert the British authorities to the possibility of a German invasion.
Set in the autumn of the previous year, it focuses on two Oxford graduates, Carruthers and Davies, who uncover a German plot to attack Britain as they sail the Fresian Islands in their tiny vessel, the Dulcibella, and stumble upon a Herr Dollman who seems intent upon getting rid of them.
Needless to say, it is a ripping good adventure story, and it is this element that Chalkfoot Theatre Arts exploit to the full in their two-man show that truly brings the classic novel to life.
Grounding the action in Edwardian England, the two performers, Matthew Brown and Tom Micklem, appear as actors inviting us to witness their play, in the same way as they might introduce a music hall act. They then proceed to act out the story with Carruthers narrating half of the action as he goes, and the pair also playing all of the minor parts.
Both performers utterly convince as turn-of-the-century Oxbridge educated men, with Brown capturing Carruthers pretty boy persona, and Micklem portraying Davies as rough and ready in a rather gentlemanly way. Towards the end, a few jokes are made about how they have to keep swapping parts, and the German accents become a little more comic, but this is quite deliberate and the predominantly theatrical set-up means that the play can cope well with these deviations.
A strong sense of atmosphere is also generated by Phil Newmans intelligent set, which uses screens for shadows to appear through, and Paul Battens effective lighting. As Carruthers arrives on the Dulcibella for the first time and squats tired and hungry in his sleeping quarters, the sense of gloom and depression is tangible. It only takes a simple lighting alteration, however, for the mood to change to one of hope as he rises the next morning to witness the beautiful scenery and breathe in the fresh air.
In some respects, the production makes us see the original novel through a twenty-first century lens, leading us to laugh when we hear Herr Dollman proclaim that history will prove that he was on the winning side. However, whilst the closing words that we should always be on the lookout for spies feel a tad ironic to us today, they highlight the fact that, although this play is innovatively staged, it remains a fairly conservative retelling of the original novel.
But if, for that reason, this production of The Riddle of the Sands could hardly be categorised as groundbreaking theatre, it remains an exceptionally neat and hugely enjoyable retelling of a classic work.