pirates

Long John Silver and his band of buccaneers. Pictures: Pete Le May

Treasure Island

Birmingham Rep

****

“Ooh Arr Jim lad”, as Robert Newton might have said, “Avast and belay, what have the landlubbin’ blaggards done to ‘ee, matey!”.

Robert Newton, of course being the real-life incarnation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver to anyone old enough for a free bus pass.

And whether his Long John would have taken to Jim lad as Jim lass we will never know but Birmingham Rep’s revival of the classic boy’s own adventure yarn has been given a new twist by writer Bryony Lavery, who sees it as merely showing girls can have adventures just as much as boys.

Thus Jim Hawkins is a rebellious teenage girl, still called Jim of course – let’s not get too adventurous - whose hackles rise at comments such as ‘maps are for men’.

Not that Jim’s gender makes any difference to the plot of what is a rSilver and Jimollicking, spiffing yarn of bloodthirsty pirates, mutiny, treasure maps and Cap’n Flint’s gold. Sarah Midleton gives us a likeable Jim, who narrates the adventure, and throws in a few witty asides to lighten the action and show this is all a little tongue in cheek.

Perhaps necessary when Silver’s Parrot, also Captain Flint, a puppet, is a useful agent of persuasion due to his penchant for pecking out human eyeballs and eating them. A gruesome trait much enjoyed by many a small boy in the audience. Many a psychopathic parrot could now be added to list for Santa.

Michael Hodgson as Silver with Sarah Middleton as Jim Hawkins

Also in the Treasure Island gender exchange programme is Dr Livesey, played by Siȃn Howard, and let’s be honest, without a little tinkering, Treasure Island really is a boy’s own adventure, boys only in fact, so a sex change doctor adds another female to the treasure hunt while Kaitlin Howard adds a little femininity – little being very much the operative word – as Joan the Goat with the chrome dome skull after the top of her head went missing. Not that a petticoat pirate would have been a shock even when the book was first serialised in 1881. Female pirates are well documented and were nothing new.  

Silver is played by Michael Hodgson who has a nice line in unadulterated evil and contempt. He is a man with questionable loyalty . . . let’s not beat about the bush, he has no loyalty. He is selfish, sly, greedy, deceitful and is not even on nodding terms with the truth. Logic says he is the villain but somehow, at least in the book, we all have a sneaky liking for him, perhaps the original lovable rogue. He is certainly the most complex character in the book where he shows a genuine liking and affection for Jim Hawkins, which, somehow, did not sit right when Silver took a more, should we say, carnal interest in this new look Jim.

In Treasure Island sex is what the gold is carried in.

Here Silver is perhaps short on the more endearing qualities, more violent and less dangerous than we expect. The charm, false as a nine bob note be it may, is missing so he is less likeable as a result.

Silver’s motley crew from Flint’s old ship, the Walrus, give us Badger, Pete Ashmore, who is a would-be leader except he complained he was always last to be picked, Dick the Dandy, played by Ru Hamilton, with his bespoke collection of knives for dismembering each part of the body and Israel Hands, who appears to be a South American sociopath played by Nicholas Prasad. Then there was Black Dog, played by Dan Poole, who seemed to use the same face tattooist as Queequeg in Moby Dick.

But we open with the evil Billy Bones, played by Dave Fishley, with his mysterious sea chest. His fight (fight director Renny Krupinski) with Black Dog was one of the most dramatic and convincing I have ever seen on stage. John Wayne would have been proud . . . and would probably have joined in. Then there is Blind Pew, a nasty apparition and giver of the dreaded black spot, played by Andrew Langtree, with all three giving a frightening warning of a one legged man, giving Jjimim nightmares. 

When Billy Bones shuffled off his mortal coil Fishley became . . . Grey I think it was, who was . . . well he was in it, I think. It was a lovely, funny performance from him. Without a programme you would never know it was the same actor.

And for dual roles Thomas Pickles steals the show as first Barney Bright Eyes, who falls foul of the parrot, and then Treasure Island’s resident person of diminished sanity as PC would probably have it, Ben Gunn, mad as a hatter, or in his case, a pair of hatters, Ben and . . . Ben.

Jim to the rescue, steering the Hispaniola by the stars

And sort of with a dual role is Greg Coulson as Lucky Micky who switches sides from the goodies to the baddies, i.e. the pirates, only to discover lucky can be a relative term.

With the secret of Bones’ chest discovered, the treasure map, Squire Trelawney sets about buying a boat and finding the treasure, being conned into hiring a crew of pirates by Silver.

The Squire is the local dignitary, upper class twit and pompous plonker, and is played with a flamboyant air of superiority and stupidity, with a dressing of cowardice, by Tonderai Munyeu.

So leaving behind Grandma Hawkins, played by Anni Domingo, and Mrs Crossley, Suzanne Nixon, with her noisy hen, the intrepid band set out under the command of Captain Smollett, a season seafarer played by Langtree again whose career as Pew was cut short, as was his throat.

The script keeps well to the original tale, except Stevenson had Silver surviving and escaping with a bag of silver. The party reach the island where mutiny ensues and the squire’s party and pirates battle it out for the treasure, good against evil.

It is a fast-paced adventure, directed with a hint of fun by Phillip Breen, with enough gore to keep small boys happy and a female hero for the girls, all helped by a cracking set from Mark Bailey with sails, a ship rising from the stage and very simple yet clever tricks to produce a seemingly bottomless trunk and a doctor’s bag Jim can climb into.

The modern trend of having actors double up as the band on stage was also in evidence and is a nice touch.

It all helps with the Rep’s huge stage, which gives us an inn, the island and the fully rigged ship all lit beautifully by Tina MacHugh. At three hours long, it can be a little wordy at times so is perhaps not the Christmas fare for younger children, the Rep suggest seven plus. The opening pace is a little slow to set the scene but once set it is a rollicking yarn for all the family. To 07-01-17

Roger Clarke

29-11-16 

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