Traverse Theatre Production
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
Outlying Islands was one of the successes of the 2002 Edinburgh Fringe (see our review) and richly deserves its transfer to London. It is a pity that Fiona Watt's beautiful set will not fully fit into the Upstairs Theatre at the Royal Court. However, though some of the scenes lose power and beauty on transfer, by way of compensation the smaller space makes life in a cave in the Outer Hebrides even more claustrophobic.
It is 1939. Johnny and Robert are two wet-behind-the-ears Cambridge graduates who have ostensibly been sent by a Ministry to study birds on an isolated island. As they talk with Kirk, the island's owner, it becomes clear that they are, in fact unwittingly sizing it up as a testing ground for destruction by anthrax.
Outlying Islands works on many levels. It is beautifully written with every word that the prolific Greig writes carefully weighed. It also takes the island and its mini dictator as a microcosm of Europe at the same time and finally can be seen as a simple coming of age love triangle.
The whole is underpinned by the richly symbolic activities of the fork-tailed petrels. They represent the four characters and on another level a doomed world that is at a crossroads.
The curmudgeonly and mercenary Kirk, played by Robert Carr, is only too happy to sell his island and its unique fork-tailed petrels to the devil if the price is right. He may preach the virtues of religion but Mammon is his only true guide. This is anathema to the two young men and particularly to Robert, a very detached, analytical man who will defend his belief in innocent nature to the death.
Increasingly, this strange character, played by Laurence Mitchell, becomes bird-like. Like the other two young people, he begins to spread his wings as each seeks a kind of maturity and freedom. Like their symbolic feathered friends, they go through mating rituals with only Darwin's fittest surviving.
This is a beautiful play, richly laden with moving symbolism and seems to work on most levels. Under Philip Howard's direction, Sam Heughan as the gauche Johnny and, especially, Lesley Hart as the initially repressed Ellen, who finds herself in the second half of the play, both give stronger performances than in Edinburgh. Miss Hart's monologue about Ellen's feelings for Robert and (Laurel and Hardy) is especially impressive and moving.
The theatre is very small, so if you love moving, thought-provoking theatre, book early to avoid what should be long returns queues.