Reviews West End & Central Published 27 October 2014

Neville’s Island

Duke of York's Theatre ⋄ booking until 3rd January 2015

The comedy tank.

Stewart Pringle

[Conversation recorded following the October 22nd performance in a nearby pub. Edited slightly for repetition and slurring.]

Liam Welton: Well, I would say it was balls, but that would be a bit kind on it. I really feel that sort of language wouldn’t be appropriate considering it was so defanged and so tame. The entire thing felt so in need of some bite. Everyone on that stage had been in more aggressive and funnier stuff than this. Everyone was known for more edgy and aggressive stuff for this. It was so gentle, it felt like they were sleepwalking through it.

Stewart Pringle: I think we both went in expecting Bottom, or at least knowing that that’s how far it could go – knowing that Ade Edmonson’s there and Robert Webb’s there.

LW: Exactly. It could go to Bottom or it could go to Peepshow, surely with Neil Morrissey there it would at least make it to Men Behaving Badly.

SP: Or with Miles Jupp there, at least to Balamory, you know? It could have at least got to Bala-fucking-Mory. And the fact that it didn’t even get to Bala-fucking-Mory in terms of subversive humour is a bit of a travesty.

LW: The moments of crisis were so few and far between that all the tension just poured away. I remember thinking in the interval that there were these tent-poles of decent comedy, but in between there is all of this sagging. All of this wet canvas!

SP: At the interval we were both talking about where the plot might go, and there is a problem, I think, that the show doesn’t establish up front or even in the middle, or at the end, what it really wants to do. You feel it might suddenly go very dark, or spin into more of a satire, and it never chooses which camp its in. It never nails its flag to the mast.

LW: The only thing that is consistent is this sort of nasty streak!

SP: There’s a very nasty streak.

LW: It decides to pick on targets so soft it’s like watching someone poke their middle finger into the head of a newborn.

SP: It has a massive problem with religious people, who it seems to suggest are all weak and damaged. It’s got a massive problem with mental illness and seems to think ‘nervous breakdown’ is sort of a synonym for lycanthropy or something. People who feel insecure in their relationships, people who feel insecure in their jobs”¦

LW: Those are the targets this show is determined to beat up. It’s like a washed up stand-up comedian just going for the most obvious and vulnerable targets he can. It’s milking those cruel laughs because they’re the only real attempts at comedy that it makes.

SP: And it’s not a very inspired set-up. It’s a bunch of middle-managers, implicitly middle-class and definitely middle-aged, working for an irrelevant company, for some mineral drinks company. They’re all on an away day in the Lake District and all their lives are framed as basically pointless and futile from the start.

LW: It feels so much like all of the actors are struggling to bring something that they’re capable of bringing to the script, with the exception of Neil Morrissey who is top to bottom dull, dull, dull.

SP: Well, Neil Morrissey’s character just has nothing to say for himself. The other characters are two-dimensional but at least that’s two dimensions. There’s what they appear to be, and there’s the dark secret that will pull them to the ground. Morrissey’s character has none of that.

LW: Everyone was pretty much determined by their relationships, by the failure of their relationships anyway, but in his case he seemed to be quite happily married with a family, so the play had nothing to say about him. It actually made me quite angry!

SP: It was quite an annoying play. Obviously it comes from that school of British comedy where we laugh at other people’s failures, partly because we recognise them in ourselves. But while here it’s so much less cutting and harsh than it can be in some of the shows that made these guys famous, it also comes across as far less pleasant.

LW: I actually think there was a sort of glamour coming from the stage at the start, which caused me to misidentify what I now think are probably pretty severe pacing issues with the text as just a mismatch of comedy styles. Because these four performers come from four different ages, in a sense.

SP: They form a sort of chronology of British comedy from the early 80s onwards, so it’s always going to be a little discombobulating seeing them share the stage, and that probably does force you to give the early sections a little more leeway than you might ordinarily. And it is properly joyous on those few occasions when everything clicks and they’re doing their stuff.

LW: But you just know that at any moment a bucket of water is going to be thrown over the evening by Firth’s script. That all the momentum is going to be done in by it.

SP: The writing is just not up to the capabilities of those performers.

LW : You often don’t clock the punchline until moments after it occurs, and it’s because you’re constantly expecting more. You’re expecting the comedy to ramp up, but instead you fall into lull after lull. It’s like it’s been written for someone with a serious heart condition, and they just don’t want them to get too excited. And that would all be fine were it not so mean spirited.

SP: So there’s this twist in the plot, which I’m going to spoil because you really shouldn’t be going to see this, where we suddenly find ourselves in a play about how creepy mental illness is, and how feeble-minded religious people are. I really thought we’d got past people with mental health issues smearing themselves with blood, stroking knives and hiding in the undergrowth.

LW: But I do think a certain amount of credit has to go to Webb, who plays that part with a decent amount of depth. He makes his character feel quite human despite the script. I think the younger generation comes out of it slightly better than the older in general.

SP: I see what you mean, but without Edmonson I think it’d have been pretty bleak stuff. I do think he gets the best of the writing, too. The material is so dated it feels strange coming out of Webb or Jupp’s mouth, to me. Jupp in particular has this incredibly weird speech where he talks about men never being able to say ‘I Love You’ that feels like it’s fallen through time from 1992.

LW: It was so hard to relate to that. To consider that there’d ever been a period in which that was an unexamined thought in the collective imaginations, when that had ever even been worth saying, really, never mind making a speech out of. Firth’s writing just rattles you between the utterly benign and banal and then the quite bizarre and difficult to comprehend.

SP: I think there’s probably a sense in which we’re being quite hard on Neville’s Island given that it’s a comedy – a West End comedy – but honestly, this is pretty lazy and boring stuff.

LW: Mainly boring.

SP: Well yeah, mainly boring. This is pretty boring stuff, even given that. And if you can put that lot on stage and make it boring, you’ve really, really fucked up somewhere.

LW: Wasn’t all bad though”¦

SP: No!

LW: It looked all right.

SP: It looked great. And it stinks like shit in the theatre because of all the stagnant water in Robert Innes Hopkins massive pondy set, and that’s fun.

LW: That really added to it for me, actually.

SP: And they really cook sausages, and they light sparklers. And that’s all real and it’s crunchy and that’s good.

LW: Even if having such a real set made the fakeness of the characters a bit more obvious. But you have a few bits, like where Edmonson comes splashing through the set and dousing the audience that are just brilliant, and so much fun. And it feels like live, exciting theatre with a real comic persona. You have moments where you look at the stage and go ‘there are four of the greatest comic actors we have. Eating sausages.’ That’s great. It’s hard not to go into the show with some pretty lofty expectations, given the people who are in it, and the show doesn’t do itself any favours in any direction really. But there are just enough moments, just, where those performers shine to give you a decent night out. Just about. But that’s a script that’s never going to leave the runway, no matter which comedians you’ve got in the tank.

SP: The comedy tank.

LW: The comedy tank.

SP: Exactly.

LW: Exactly.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Neville’s Island Show Info

Directed by Angus Jackson

Written by Tim Firth

Cast includes Adrian Edmondson, Miles Jupp, Neil Morrissey, Robert Webb




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