New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 25th November, 2017
With this new adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic adventure, Theresa Heskins plots a course for another big Christmas hit. Setting her version firmly in the North West, there is a host of Merseyside accents here – a change from the now-cliched West Country aarrs we immediately associate with the genre! Our hero is plucky Gem Hawkins (a plucky Nisa Cole) who has to disguise herself as a cabin boy, having stowed away on board a ship bound for the titular island. Cole is a ball of energy, likeable and expressive, and our guide through this dangerous, exciting world.
Another change is that Doctor Livesey is also female (Ellen Chivers) but if the TARDIS can have one, why not the Hispaniola?
Into the sleepy coastal pub where Jem works with her mother (a forceful Jessica Dyas) comes a stranger – in the book he’s Billy Bones, here he’s Captain Flint (Richard Costello), bringing with him intrigue, mystery and action but also electric guitars! Suddenly, James Atherton’s score is alive with heavy rock! It’s a surprise and a welcome one. Atherton can write in any style, it seems, and this deliberate period-smashing inclusion heightens the energy levels and the theatricality of the storytelling. Heskins directs with customary wit and invention (Flint polishing off plate after plate of eggs and bacon is a delight!) and everything is in service of the narrative. However, it does feel at times that the narrative loses momentum and needs crank-starting every now and then as the next iconic moment appears on the horizon.
The production is rich with gems: Andy Burse’s Squire Trelawney is a hugely enjoyable, upper-class buffoon; Lauryn Redding’s Darby McGraw is in great voice and is the most menacing of the pirates (female pirates are well-documented); William Pennington is a sweetly mad Ben Gunn – and he plays a mean xylophone; and Gareth Cassidy’s Red Dog is amusing in his intensity and attempts at subterfuge.
Tom Peters’s Long John Silver lacks the impact or charisma of Costello’s Flint, and it takes quite a while for the character to come alive. His first scene requires him to sit, static, an approach which provides contrast to all the action we’ve seen so far, but denies him a big introduction. We need to engage with him in order to be taken in. Stevenson makes him a morally ambiguous figure and his relationship with Jim/Gem is key.
Certain moments are perfect. A dance of tropical birds, fleshed out by members of the Young Company and accompanied by Atherton’s rousingly tropical score, is a delight for eye and ear. The scene with Gem and agile baddie Israel Hands (Leon Scott) in the ship’s rigging is the best scene of the piece: tense and expertly executed. The pirates’ song that opens the second act. James Atherton’s score as a whole. The New Vic’s production team: Lis Evans’s costumes, Daniella Beattie’s lighting, Alex Day’s sound… as ever, production values are high, from the big ideas (the wooden frame that lowers to represent the ship) to the smallest detail (the puppet parrot is elegantly performed (by Jessica Dyas).
There is a wealth of good ideas here, enough to get us through the patchy (eye-patchy?) bits when the dramatic thrust of the plot is becalmed.
Funny, thrilling and inventive, this is one worth setting sail for.
The show is rigged! Nisa Cole leads a cast of pirates
Leave a comment | tags: Alex Day, Andy Burse, Daniella Beattie, Ellen Chivers, Gareth Cassidy, James Atherton, Jessica Dyas, Lauryn Redding, Leon Scott, Lis Evans, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Nisa Cole, review, Richard Costello, Robert Louis Stevenson, Theresa Heskins, Tom Peters, Treasure Island, WIlliam Pennington | posted in Theatre Review
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th June, 2012
Written 20 years ago, Richard Shannon’s play has been revived to commemorate this year’s 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials. The cast of four works hard to conjure up a sense of this community and the period but, like a broken broomstick, it never really gets off the ground.
Magistrate Roger Nowell (Robert Calvert) is a self-important boor who, when his son is stillborn suspects the woman who tended his wife had a hand in it – literally. Chuck in some wild accusations from a lively beggar girl (Nisa Cole) and things are soon spiralling out of control. People (mainly women) are tried and executed because their superstitions contradict the prevailing institutionalised superstitions. Except they don’t. Calvert believes in God and angels; the ‘witches’ are supposed to believe in the Devil and demons. It’s like deciding which side of the Force you’re going to use. It’s disturbing to think that people will use superstition as a means to ruin people’s lives. But this was four centuries ago. In our modern, enlightened world that no longer happens – touch wood. That’s what I took from this production: a rather depressing view of humans. There are still those who cling to superstition ahead of fairness, kindness and common sense.
The main problem is it has all been done before and done better. Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible overshadows this play. That was a metaphor for the McCarthy anti-communist trials of the 1950s. Sabbat is less direct in its relevance. As a local history piece and one-for-the-tourists, it (like its characters) has good intentions but I found it lacking in local colour. Now on the road, away from its native Lancashire, it needs to bring a stronger flavour of that county to the rest of us who are not fortunate enough to live there. The dialogue is that heightened form of English you get in period pieces, devoid of slang and idiom. There is a lot of verbiage to wade through. “It was dark. There was no light,” Calvert explains at one point. The language seems to weigh the characters down.
It’s all a bit po-faced. Even in the few lighter moments, they’re all so earnest. I would have liked to see a bit of frivolity and liveliness before the trouble started in order to make the contrast with the darkest moments more effective. There is some evocative singing in between scenes and the cast is an efficient if joyless ensemble.
One scene stood out for me. Alice Nutter (Christine Mackie giving the strongest performance) has been arrested and charged. Calvert conducts her interrogation, trying to elicit a confession. Here is the crux of the play. An innocent woman caught in the wheels of his belief system. Alice details in a speech of beautifully dark imagery what the consequences of pursuing Calvert’s beliefs will be, describing the decay of the bodies in the gibbets that will line the roads. It is a moment of real power and energy – a woman speaking out against the injustices of the male-run system. At last, I thought, we can see what these actors are capable of.
The execution is staged symbolically, with headscarves being hoist on hooks. It seems like a bit of a let-down. I wanted something a bit more brutal and harder hitting to finish the thing off, after the late promise of that powerful scene. I left the theatre wondering if a documentary-style approach would have made the experience fresher, more immediate and more involving.
Leave a comment | tags: Christine Mackie, New Vic Theatre, Nisa Cole, Pendle witches, review, Richard Shannon, Robert Calvert, Sabbat | posted in Theatre Review