Treasure Island @ Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

cast list
Keith Allen, Michael Legge, James Atherton, Mark Bagnall, Tony Bell, Paul Brennen, Matt Costain, Estella Daniels, Branwell Donaghey, Howard Gossington, Dermot Kerrigan, James Lailey, John Lightbody, Mark Theodore, Sharlene Whyte

directed by
Sean Holmes

November has arrived, and with it the first of the family shows for Christmas.

Or, at least, that would be true if I thought Ken Ludwig’s new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic might actually appeal to a family audience – or any audience for that matter.

Whilst it’s hardly x-rated, there are still enough skeletons, rolling heads, gunshots and general noise to make it unsuitable for the very young (it is billed as suitable for over fives).

Conversely, there is little in this two-hour show to make it a satisfying experience for adults.

This leaves a very narrow window of appeal.
For what should be a tale of adventure the production is strangely static. The stage remains largely bare, with the exception of a few ropes and sails hanging from the ceiling, and a number of props brought on for different scenes. Such a minimalist approach can work well when in keeping with the material. Unfortunately that’s not the case with Treasure Island and the staging simply leaves the cast swinging about the same space throughout and shouting far too much, as if to compensate.

One could argue that Treasure Island is aimed at a young audience and expectations should be tweaked accordingly, that one shouldn’t expect too much depth. But actually Ludwig’s adaptation takes Stevenson’s original plot – which sees pirates and well-to-dos alike searching for the buried treasure – and uses it to explore questions concerning loyalty and the ‘spirituality’ of the supposed rogues. But, though it sounds potentially interesting, little of this actually came through in the production which was hampered with noisy, over-the-top acting that was frequently as wooden as Long John Silver’s leg.

The biggest failure was that of Michael Legge’s Jim Hawkins; his performance was flat and utterly without depth. In contrast, the show’s saviour came in an unlikely form, that of Keith Allen, who applied a degree of colour, but also a surprising restraint, to the part of Long John Silver. He sometimes faltered in the delivery of his lines, but the speech in which he argued that peeling potatoes was the best job on the ship, was one of the few occasions where you sensed the production had the capacity to be better.

Other strong performances came from Tony Bell, as Billy Bones, and John Lightbody, who plays both Blind Pew and Squire Trelawney, but these were all relatively minor roles. Otherwise, the production was beset by unsubtle and ridiculously noisy acting.

The music, by Tom Haines and Ross Hughes, was also pretty unmemorable. There were few real songs, and most of the music consisted of simple rhythms played intermittently to add atmosphere. Where there was singing it was usually only for a few bars at a time, and often its purpose was simply to link scenes. In fairness, Treasure Island does not overtly advertise itself as a musical, but one tends to associate such seasonal fare with song and dance and I wonder if the lack of any music of note might leave people feeling short-changed.

The biggest question about this whole production is who were they aiming it at? Too boisterous for the very young and too bland for most people in their teens and over, I concede that it may just about keep older children entertained for a while, but only if they happen to be partial to swash-buckling and don’t mind having their eardrums assaulted by the shouty cast.

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