Review: Treasure Island (National Theatre, London)

The National has become known for its Christmas shows. The one production of the year that you can bet will be suitable for the kids, it has been a staple of the calendar under Nicholas Hytner’s reign. And, following in the footsteps of Emil and the Detectives, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and His Dark Materials, this year’s big bet is Treasure Island.

Based on the book by Robert Louis Stephenson, this new version written by Bryony Lavery is directed by Polly Findlay and tells the story of Jim Hawkins (here, portrayed as a girl) as she goes in search of treasure. Along the way she comes across the fabled Long John Silver and his gang of pirates, who also have their eyes on the treasure.

On paper it works, and in many iterations of the story has worked before now. But not this time. In a production that splashes out on lavish production values and has such a royal literary history, there’s virtually no drama. In fact, amongst the severe lack of characterisation and misplaced humour, any sense of drama in Lavery’s script is about as hard to find as Captain Flint’s treasure.

The saving grace, of course, would be if the cast were able to make the most of the poor material, but not here. Either through a lack of inspiration or poor direction, the performances come across as hammy at best. Granted, Patsy Ferran is one of the better performances as Jim and our narrator, but I can’t help but feel that’s merely because she’s one of the few to be treated as a character rather than a plot point.

Even Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver feels half conceived. More a petty thief than criminal of the seas, there’s very little menacing about the portrayal, which means that at no point is there any feeling of danger to the production. In fact, the only thing vaguely pirate-like is the parrot sidekick, which admittedly is one of the highlights of the evening.

And in regards the scrawny Ben Gunn (Joshua James), must every unusual character now be played out exactly like Gollum from Lord of the Rings? A tedious portrayal. Which in retrospect is wholly representative of the rest of the production.

Don’t get me wrong, Findlay’s production isn’t without merit. Look to designer Lizzie Clachan for some truly top-notch work. The use of the Olivier stage’s drum revolve is second to none, and certainly the best use of the stage’s abilities that I’ve seen. Ships rise out from beneath the cast’s feet, characters slide through the floor into tunnels below, caves appear out of nowhere.

It’s definitely one of the more expensive-looking productions of recent years, and leagues above most of the West End at the minute, so it’s unfortunate that, like the characters, the sets feel underused. Before you’ve really had chance to take everything in, it’s moved on and you’re looking at something else.

If anything the grandiose nature of the scenery only helps emphasise the poor direction. The reveal of the ship’s rooms or the starry sky on the Olivier’s roof should have been big moments, but fell flat.

Still, the kids seemed to love it well enough, and ultimately that’s what it’s all about (at least, that’s what I’m telling myself…). But there were definitely a few bored faces on the adults in the auditorium, so be warned. This is theatre-by-numbers at its most basic so don’t expect any drama beyond clunky sword fights.

Verdict: ★★☆☆☆

Don’t go in expecting drama on the high seas. This is little more than a mild tiff on a small pond. A posh panto, if you will. A poor script and hammy acting that’s saved only by some incredible scenery. Like so many people I know it can be summed up easily: ‘pretty but dull’.

And the seat…

Circle, Row G, seat 60. I’ve gushed about this auditorium before but there are literally no interrupted sight lines to be found. Even here on the back row of the circle, the view was perfect and really didn’t feel too distant. The only minor issue was the sound but for the most part the audio could be heard clearly.

Olivier Theatre, Circle Row G60

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