Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Ken Ludwig
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Review by Philip Fisher
The Christmas season has started early with Sean Holmes' production of Treasure Island in a new adaptation by Ken Ludwig opening midway through November.
Depending on age and taste, the star will either be known as a bit of a Pinter specialist, the Sheriff of Nottingham or (much more commonly) Lily's dad. Being seen as the parent of a famous child must be quite galling for the self-effacing and far worse for a personality with numerous screen and stage credits to his name.
However, Keith Allen rises above the second-hand glory in the kind of part that lets any actor show off their skills. It may take some time for Long John Silver to appear but when he does so, complete with a 21st-century computerised parrot, the old pirate makes an immediate impact.
For someone whose first memory of theatre, bar the gang show and pantos, was a Christmas Treasure Island at the Mermaid, the chunky false leg that Allen drags around the stage is no substitute for the good old days when actors were forced to hop around on one leg for eight performances a week with the other tied up behind them. Surely that is not just a faulty memory?
Where Holmes is always good is in the stage business. On this occasion, he receives great support from designer Lizzie Clachan, video designer Daniel Kluge and especially lighting designer Paul Anderson, who works wonders on numerous occasions.
They give a real sense of what it must have been like to live at sea on a leaky sailing vessel in the mother and father of all storms, being tossed around and in fear of imminent, watery death.
The impression that they give is then enhanced by a handful of jaunty sea shanties composed by Tom Haines and Ross Hughes, the latter also forming part of an onstage musical trio. Master fight director Terry King has worked wonders and completes the effect with a series of duels, the best of which takes place in darkness and is presumably less dangerous than it looks.
The effects are great but Ken Ludwig's adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel tells the tale faithfully but rarely gets the heart racing. It is overly narrated by Michael Legge as Jim Hawkins, a boy whose gullibility is so great that his survival almost beggars belief.
The tale that he tells is a familiar one, featuring John Lightbody's Blind Pew and his black spots, secret maps and pirates (gentlemen of fortune in their own eyes) galore with names like Black Dog and Justice Death under the control of evil Long John Silver.
On the good side, our young hero leads the way, assisted by Lightbody again as brainless Squire Trelawney but also the calm Yorkshireman Captain Smollett, given real stage presence by Tony Bell.
For 2¼ hours, the goodies and baddies happily joust in England, on board the Hispaniola and then most excitingly and eerily in the jungle. Inevitably, by the dénouement, good triumphs to send everybody home with a smile on their faces.
From a different perspective, Treasure Island can also be seen as the journey of Jim Hawkins from callow, innocent youth to maturity and that maybe is where its value lies. His generosity towards Long John Silver at the end shows a degree of understanding that he could never have managed without first losing his father and finding treasure in the company of real men. Whether it fits in with the plot and characterisation might be more questionable.
There is a big enough dose of both visual and aural stimulation, not to mention Lily's dad, to ensure that the Theatre Royal Haymarket will be substantially full until the New Year, especially when up to two kids can get entry at half price with an adult. It is just a pity that the script lacks the pace and drama that one so fondly remembers from childhood.