Islander is the third show I’ve seen so far this Fringe where young people keeping an animal alive is used as a metaphor for ecology. It happens in Parakeet (which, like Islander, also plays in Summerhall’s Roundabout) and it happens in one of the Traverse’s Breakfast Plays, Kit-Kat. Both of the others are loud shows, pushy shows, protest shows, and provide an instructive contrast to describe Islander. Because, despite its weighty themes (migration, environment, belonging), Islander is exceptionally, disarmingly, gentle.
Through looped singing and smart foley sounds, Finn Anderson’s music and lyrics and Stewart Melton’s book tell the story of Eilidh (Bethany Tennick), a girl on a small Scottish island, whose world changes when she finds a dying whale washed on the beach. Soon, a newcomer, Arran (Kirsty Findlay) appears, a friend from a faraway place.
Both the choice of plot and presentation are deft ones for Islander’s family audience: Anderson’s composition is so technically outstanding that anyone would find it impressive, and the looped sounds in particular will be fascinating for younger audiences who can see the score’s construction piece-by-piece. At the heart of the story too, is the girls’ friendship and their discovery of each other’s alien worlds, a universal theme across the age groups.
In fact some of the play’s most charming moments come when Arran’s character looks at Eilidh’s human world from the outside, making the familiar seem magical and strange.
Drawing on the Scottish folklore of the sea-bound ‘finfolk’, Islander strongly brings to my mind another recent piece of new writing for children: Racheal Plummer’s collection Wain: LGBT Reimaginings of Scottish Folklore. Plummer’s poem ‘Finfolkaheem’ could almost have been written as a coda for Anderson and Melton’s story. The poem’s heroine leaves the land for a ‘finwife’ who lives below the water:
But time came like a tide;
eroding life’s bedrock
and flooding me with the possibility
The two pieces share a similar gentleness, and a common understanding of folklore as something that can hold its characters tenderly in both the present and the mythologised past. Indeed, in a context in which stories like those of the ‘finfolk’ (and more often the related metamorphic legend of the selkie) are increasingly used to explore LGBT themes, Islander sometimes seems to move towards a romantic plot-line between Eilidh and Arran (embarrassed by their fondness for each other, fumbling through a private dance away from the island festival) that never explicitly emerges.
Elsewhere the show similarly struggles to hold onto all of the themes towards which it gestures. In particular, the play’s environmental themes are all but left behind by the time of the plot’s denouement. Initially, Arran’s character, who we assume washes up on the beach with the whale, suggests a climate migrant, as do the islanders’ sometimes prejudiced reactions towards her (even this, though – an accusation of garden gnome-theft – is surprisingly gentle). But her status soon changes when it is revealed she is really a political exile. And whilst her friendship with Eilidh is a fitting (and often very funny) primer on how to navigate difference, the play’s conclusion eschews the difficulties Arran might face building a life in a strange home: visitor rather than arrival. Such are the boundaries of Islander’s gentleness, which eases us in so readily, but which only has means to take us so far.
There are imbalances too in Islander’s overall construction, its songs noticeably out-matching its spoken dialogue. Anderson’s music, which Tennick and Findley perform with enviable stamina and control, creates a commanding sound that lifts wave-like around us. His largely non-rhyming libretto (an unusual choice) reveals a real confidence in the quality of his own writing, and in the compositions themselves. In contrast, some of the non-musical scenes, especially near the beginning, feel like they’re filling time, progress our knowledge of plot and character too slowly and often stray into unnecessary backstory. This makes an otherwise accomplished and ambitious production feel sometimes uneven.
Still, Islander wins huge affection from its audience. Its soundscape is big and inviting, and its pivotal relationship – between Eilidh and Arran – engenders real affection. Like Eilidh, the show befriends us and welcomes us with both hands. And, like Arran’s journey beyond the island’s borders, it doubtlessly has potential (and one suspects the ambition) for a life beyond its current shores.
Islander is on at Paines Plough at Summerhall at 10am, until 25th August. More info and tickets here.