Rollicking pirate yarn Treasure Island is steeped in Bristol dockside lore. Robert Louis Stevenson supposedly took inspiration for his tale of the hunt for Captain Flint’s booty from overhearing sailors jawing in The Llandoger Trow – the waterfront pub where Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk, the real life Robinson Crusoe. Long John Silver’s haunt, The Spyglass, is reputedly modelled on another waterfront tavern just round the corner, The Hole in the Wall, and then, of course, there’s the port city’s historical connections with buccaneers and privateers of every stripe.
With its main house closed for refurbishment, Bristol Old Vic is staging its new adaptation outside on the cobbles of King Street, only yards from the Trow, the Hole and the wharves once haunted by the likes of Blackbeard. Seagulls obligingly squawk overhead, adding an extra touch of maritime authenticity. Not that director Sally Cookson’s take on Stevenson’s transatlantic narrative needs any help in that department. Spreading across and climbing up the theatre’s Georgian facade, Phil Eddolls’ multi-levelled set is all spars, ropes and companionways, a sort of adventure playground which happily morphs from inn to ship to island but keeps the tightly packed audience as close to the action as possible. Kate Sykes’ ragged-trousered costumes have a timeless piratical feel, too, while composer-performer Benji Bower’s soundtrack – a combination of a Hitchcockian pre-recorded underscore with live songs and music – steers a judicious course between grog-eyed, melancholic folk, brooding Portishead-esque moodscapes and the requisite salty sea dog shantying á la Fisherman’s Friends.
It’s in the clear-sighted storytelling and characterisation, though, that this production really scores. Devised by the company and then finessed into a script by dramaturg Mike Akers in the space of just a few weeks, it hurtles along with the same relentless pace as the book, but without veering off into pantomime or, for that matter, getting bogged down in the stodgy solemnity which sometimes afflicts theatrical ‘reinventions’ of family-friendly classics. Above all, what emerges most strongly is that, for all the black spots, treasure maps, mutinies, parleying and timber-shivering skulduggery, this is very much a coming-of-age story. Over the course of his adventures, Jim Hawkins (played with great confidence and zest by Jonny Weldon, who himself turns eighteen and comes of age during the run) goes from wide-eyed mother’s boy to Long John Silver’s seasick protégé to independent young man, with the audience seeing the events unfold from his point of view. Silver’s pragmatic capitulation to Dr Livesey, for example, happens off-stage and the side-switching pirate almost visibly diminishes in stature as Jim realises the full extent of his duplicity.
As Silver himself, meanwhile, Tristan Sturrock (recently seen at the Vic in his first-rate autobiographical one-man show Frankenspine, and a regular with Kneehigh) oozes roguish charisma, his veneer of soft-pedalling, Cornish-accented charm constantly threatening to give way to a hard-nosed cynicism and bitter temper. He’s an iron fist in a velveteen glove: bellowing at his fellow mutineers and cocksuredly swaggering around Captain Smollett’s besieged stockade, but calm and caring around Jim, adroit at presenting himself as a role model and a man more sinned against than sinning.
With only a small cast, though, this is very much an ensemble piece, with plenty of heroic doubling-up and ingenious stagecraft to make up for the shortfall in sheer numbers. There are sharp and enjoyable characterisations too, from Zara Ramm as the doomed Israel Hands and Craig Edwards as Livesey to Howard Coggins as a high-camp Squire Trelawney, Ian Harris as an officious Captain Smollet (and Davy Jones-esque fiddle-playing Captain Flint) and Saikat Ahamed as a capering, cheese-obsessed Ben Gunn.
With just the mix of action, humour and the odd darker moment, this Treasure Island very much follows in the tradition of high-quality family theatre that BOV’s established in recent years: a distinctively Bristolian take on a popular yarn and a hearty summer spectacle to boot