New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
One by one, Neville, Gordon, Angus and Roy emerge panting and spluttering from a few feet of water onto a rocky shore. They are the middle management of a Midlands company, marooned during a team-building weekend in the Lake District. Neville, their elected leader, is congratulating himself on decoding the supposedly cryptic clue to their day's route, until Roy points out that perhaps the clue might not have been cryptic after all, and that rather than going upstream to an island in a lake, they should have gone downstream to a pub by a green.
As the four middle-aged, anoraked chaps change from their soaking gear into the dry clothing in their backpacks, this 'comedy in thick fog' gets off to a promising start, and it's riveting to watch them wriggling out of wet and into dry underpants behind little towels, onstage. We begin to see that Neville (Robert Benfield) is too clever for his own - and others' - good; that Gordon (Tony Turner) does nothing but mock and criticise; that the apparently super-efficient Angus (Jonathan Jaynes) is probably henpecked and certainly gullible; and that behind the kindly light of 'religious' Roy (Julian Harries) there lurks a dark shadow.
The actors cope well with the stage business and comedy set-pieces in this play, and the foursome saying grace over their meagre quarters of a re-heated sausage is the hilarious highlight of the first half. What doesn't convince, though, is the emerging serious undercurrent of the comedy. Angus' middle-class angst and Neville's penetrating character analysis of the sarcastic Gordon come across as sudden and unconvincing rather than as inevitable, if surprising, revelations of character.
It's possible that some of this is a shortfall in the play itself. Firth's comedy was nominated for Evening Standard and Olivier awards in the mid 1990s, and there's been a successful TV version, but without a charismatic cast the writing doesn't sustain our interest in the characters. Neville and Gordon aren't developed much beyond the initial impression, and a greater variety of character combinations onstage would offer some fresh possibilities in a disappointing and increasingly serious second half.
Deftly directed, the gradual shift of register from the bold comedy of the opening to the Greek tragedy of the conclusion might have extraordinary power, but Peter Rowe's direction creates the impression of contrasting genres awkwardly grafted rather than of a subtle, multilayered hybrid.
The star of the show, undoubtedly, is Dawn Allsopp's realistic set, complete with birch trees, rocky outcrop and watery pools. It's not hard to believe that a rare seabird, off-course from Greenland, would land here to become the focus of Christian Roy's ever more bizarre attentions. But in this increasingly off-course production, it's not only the incredulous middle managers who find the gory communion of the ending hard to swallow.
"Neville's Island" runs until 20th March
Reviewer: Jill Sharp