Ah, Christmas: the time of year when theatre does its best to live up to the glory of the Muppets. It’s no different at the National, where Bryony Lavery’s new adaptation of Treasure Island (you know Treasure Island, right? Maybe some of you have even read it) is drawing young crowds into the Olivier to hear the tale of plucky cabin girl Jim.
Yes, girl. Jim is gender-swapped in a decision delightful not only for all the ‘little girls need adventures just as much as little boys’ moments, but when one imagines how much it is bound to irritate Quentin Letts. Anyway, it feels a very natural change, and Patsy Ferran is wonderful, carrying the whole massive juggernaut of a show along with plenty of innocent, and never overdone, youthful charm.
It’s just plain exciting to see Ferran take to that massive stage and start the glorious set moving as she settles us down for a pirate adventure. Lyn Gardner wrote a lovely piece in the Guardian earlier this month about the joy of sharing a Christmas kids’ show with actual children, and she’s right that it’s fun when they react in an uninhibited way to whatever happens on stage. But my god, there should be a word for the moment a packed 1000-seater auditorium filled mainly with boisterous kids falls completely silent as the lights go down, breathless with excitement. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t quite live up to the excitement and promise of its opening ten minutes.
Treasure Island is a classic and like most children’s classics there’s a brilliant and slightly terrifying story at its heart, so it keeps you entertained, but somehow the production doesn’t quite feel ready. There are a handful of delightful performances, don’t get me wrong: Ferran, obviously, but also Gillian Hanna, who is brilliant fun as Jim’s grandmother (the play misses her when their sea voyage leaves her behind), Helena Lymbery as the kind and logical Dr Livesey, and Tim Samuels, consistently funny as the eternally forgotten, monotone sailor Grey. But somehow it just doesn’t come together. Jokes that should get a laugh fall quietly away, moments of back-and-forth timing go up the spout, and you’re left with a sense that the show has more in common with panto than with theatre, in terms of its emphasis on pure spectacle over character development.
That’s most obvious in the relationship between Jim and notorious low pirate Long John Silver, here played by bonafide Doctor Who star Arthur Darvill. I’ve seen Darvill on stage before and think he’s a good actor, but I spent the first half of this show thinking he’d been woefully miscast: Darvill’s likeable and fun in his early scenes, when Long John becomes Jim’s friend in the kitchens of the ship, but the rug-pull reveal of his villainy doesn’t quite work, partly because you don’t see enough of that friendship before it’s stripped away, and party because Darvill lacks menace.
This feels like a big, fancy pantomime that wants a big, fancy pantomime villain, but that’s not what they’re doing here, and once you come round to that, you realise that what they’ve done instead is actually really interesting. Instead of making Long John a stereotypical pirate, he’s more of a sword-wielding, lost-on-the-way-to-Shoreditch winking charmer, which sounds shit until you notice how strange and ambiguous his relationship with Jim is.
Mostly Jim is gender-swapped in this production without comment, she’s basically exactly the same as the original Jim but with a few “cabin boy! Cabin…girl?” jokes thrown in. But how interesting is it that the stuff of the now-female Jim’s nightmares is a man who’s sort of sexually interested in her? She’s a girl just reaching puberty, and she’s been told to fear this one-legged nightmare pirate, but then he seems so nice to her, and looks after her, right up until the moment when he doesn’t. It’s a genuinely fascinating dynamic, but completely underdone, and as an idea it does feel a bit misplaced in this big mad kids’ show, to be honest.
But still, what a spectacle it is. There are moments of complete magic and joy here, although they’re very National Theatre, and I mean that in the sense that while other theatres create those moments with a calibre of writing, acting and directing capable of sending tingles up your spine, the NT very often seems to do it with…well, money. They throw shitloads of money at these things, and the set goes round and round, and you think, So what? Don’t get me wrong, it takes your breath away how clever and how beautiful Lizzie Clachan’s set design is – I want her to design my whole life now, my jaw literally DROPPED, I mean I cannot overstate how good this set is – but it does kind of upstage the actors. To be honest, it upstages everyone and everything happening on that stage because you might as well be getting people to act on a pile of gold doubloons for two and a half hours.
‘Ostentatious’ is, I think, the word I’m looking for. For me there’s more Christmas magic in, say, Cinderella And The Beanstalk at Theatre503, which has that unique feeling of possibility and charm you get in fringe theatres. Don’t get me wrong, it seemed like kids were having a pretty good time and I mostly had a pretty good time too – I don’t want to have a rant here, really. But look: imagine that incredible set, and now imagine that set with something AMAZING happening in it. Imagine if the show had actually been fucking great and not just an excuse for somebody to make a gorgeous living pirate ship spin up out of the middle of the Olivier. Imagine that, and tell me you don’t feel a tiny bit annoyed at what a missed opportunity Treasure Island is.
The Pirate King: Exeunt’s interview with Arthur Darvill