Review | Treasure Island (National Theatre at Home)


With the theatres closed during the Covid-19 lockdown, it’s amazing to see so many venues putting their work out digitally for us to share.

I’ve been excited about a fair few so far, but National Theatre’s Treasure Island in particular piqued my interest – having acted in a variation of it last year!

Based on the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island tells the story of landlubber Jim Hawkins’ adventures on the Hispaniola with Long John Silver, and their search for buried treasure. The story is now part of the global consciousness – it is almost the exclusive source of the buried treasure trope, and the 1950 film adaptation set the benchmark for the “pirate” stereotype we all know and love (y’arrrr)

Bryony Lavery’s adaptation makes a few key changes – Jim Hawkins is a girl now, which actually, thankfully, changes very little of the actual story, but does allow some space for some nice feminist one liners.

Girls need adventures too, Mrs Hawkins!

Dr Livesey – Treasure Island

The major attraction with this version is the set – the revolve is almost supernaturally smooth, and it’s perhaps only the second time I’ve heard an audience applaud a set change. As the ship quite literally rises out of the ground, the cast clamber around on rigging and run up and down stairs making it really feel like we’re watching them aboard an almighty schooner. Captain Flint, the parrot, was also an animatronic marvel, and there was some truly excellent slight-of-hand on display.

Beyond this, I’m sad to say I found the production overwhelmingly average. I’ll admit that I probably have a disadvantage from your run of the mill audience member however – having played Dr Livesey myself last year and developed a lot of love for the characters, it was incredibly difficult to see them played out on this stage with very little chemistry and missing the heart we as a cast had discovered in the text

In fact, sitting down to write a review this morning has left me struggling to find stand out moments that defined any of the characters at all. Arthur Darvill (yes, Rory Pond from Doctor Who) was never particularly menacing or charismatic as Long John Silver, while Patsy Ferran‘s Jim was enthusiastic but lacking a real sense of naivety and innocence to explain her willingness to change side when provoked. The “landlubbers” had no real interactions between one another – although I did find it interesting that I’d picked the same emphasis and tone as this Dr Livesey (Alexandra Maher) in the early scenes without ever having seen this production! Squire (Nick Fletcher) came across as childish and unlikable, without any redemption, Dr had no compassion, or frankly, emotion of any sort, and as for Job, Ruth, Sue and Mickey – they barely had enough stage time for people to realise they were there, let alone develop any sort of real character. The same can be said for the remainder of the Walrus Crew (aka the Pirates) who seemed to yell their way through their lines without really attributing much meaning to any of it. A real disappointment was Ben Gunn (Joshua James) – the distracting yellow face paint wasn’t enough to disguise the fact that the “scrawny cabin boy” hadn’t gone sufficiently mad to complain about the “mad making island”, so his posh voiced requests for cheese fell flat rather than raising a laugh.

One exception to my general dislike of the characters was Grey (Tim Samuels) who managed to make me laugh with every appearance, and captured the general “greyness” of the character with superb comic timing.

Another issue was the pace – for a dramatic story it certainly seemed to stay flat throughout, which again I think is probably a result of the lack of depth to these characters. Deaths flew by almost unnoticed, relationships were touched on far too briefly for anyone to care about them much, which meant the climax came and went without much hurrah. And the fact that everyone was shouting rather than projecting from the start meant that the “louder” moments felt rather a lot like the rest of it…

The script has changed since this production – the version we performed certainly had a lot more opportunity for comedy and darkness and sword fighting than this original version so perhaps I’m being unkind – but I genuinely expected more from the National Theatre production. I know the words and the characters so well, I’ll freely admit to being biased, but I wanted to love this show so much. It wasn’t a secret that there was a lot about our show I didn’t enjoy or wished we could have done differently, but what we did have was likeable, rounded characters and a hell of a lot of fun – which I think is far more important than a flashy set.

It looked stunning, but this production was far from ship-shape and Bristol fashion – lurking around in the doldrums instead.

2 stars (mostly for the set…)

Photos: Johann Persson