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Neville's Island

Tim Firth
Birmingham Rep
(2005)

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When a theatre programme contains a four-page feature with the director, designer, lighting designer and production manager discussing how they built the set and staged the play, you imagine they've probably come up with something special.

The attraction of performing Neville's Island at the Rep is its huge stage. It's enabled the production team to push the boat out, as it were, and design one of the most ambitious sets many theatregoers will ever have seen.

Designer Simon Higlett has really splashed out. Other companies might have had water on the stage when they performed Neville's Island - Higlett has actually flooded the whole stage. The production team even had to take out the first three rows of seats because the set extends over the orchestra pit into the auditorium.

The set represents Rampsholme Island on Derwentwater in the Lake District. Apart from the water, there are rocks built out of polystyrene and trees in which the actors sit to contemplate the ordeal that they find themselves in.

The whole set looks spectacular - and when it's covered in swirling mist the island appears cold, damp and miserable. Not the place you'd want to be stranded. When lighting designer Mark Jonathan gets to work, Rampsholme looks even less inviting.

The potential problem of having such a stunning set is that it could easily become the star of the show if the actors are, figuratively speaking, out of their depth. Yet within moments of seeing the four guys on stage, you know they're not fish out of water.

Neville's Island has a terrific start. Les Dennis, who plays Neville, splashes across the stage and is submerged when a puddle is much deeper than he anticipates!

His colleagues manage to miss the deep water but they're also soaked to the skin, so they have a complete change into dry clothing from their rucksacks.

Neville's Island is the tale of four middle-managers from Salford whose company organises a Lake District team-building exercise called, appropriately enough, Coping With Crisis. Neville's team are immediately put to the test when their boat sinks and they take refuge on the island. Their characters and secrets are revealed as their weekend becomes more and more fraught.

Dennis takes top billing but he never hogs the stage. Nor is he overshadowed by the other three cast members. Dennis acts quite naturally. He's completely at home as the hapless team leader who's made the wrong decisions and has to suffer for his actions.

Most of the time he's ridiculed by the domineering, sarcastic, declamatory Gordon. John Hodgkinson copes well with a role that could quite easily degenerate into a constant rant against the three other managers he's been lumbered with.

Paul Bown is ideal as Christian, bird-watching Roy who has a dark secret, and Stewart Wright excels as geeky Angus, the man prepared for any eventuality who reveals an angrier side to his character when he's pushed too far.

Tim Firth's script gives all the actors plenty of laughs yet it has moments of pathos too. And director Paul Raffield, who played Angus in a previous revival of the play, revels in the freedom presented by the vast proportions of the Rep stage.

Great fun. It's a watertight production.

"Neville's Island" runs until May 7th

Reviewer: Steve Orme