Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Outlying Islands

David Greig
Ustinov Studio
Theatre Royal, Bath
(2006)

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Andrew Smaje, producer at the Ustinov, discusses how hard it is for a new writer to secure a second production of one of their plays. As he says, these pieces, however well crafted and received, are no longer seen as 'new', and are not yet 'classic'.

But it is immediately evident why the Ustinov has chosen to stage this revival of Greig's Outlying Islands: it is a stunning, poetic study of what makes us vital; of life, love and lust.

Greig's unlikely inspiration for the piece was the true history of a remote and uninhabited outcrop of rock, off the northern coast of Scotland, where in 1942 the British Ministry of Defence conducted an experiment to ascertain the effect of an explosion of anthrax spores onto a field of sheep. Their conclusion was that such an explosion would render a city uninhabitable "for generations".

It is a mark of Greig's talent as a story maker, that against such a backdrop he has constructed a tale of such breath-taking beauty and poignancy, packed too with moments of pure comedy.

This is the Ustinov's second in-house production, following last year's highly acclaimed, The Blue Room. Sensitively directed by Loveday Ingram, Outlying Islands has a rock-solid cast and the theatre has excelled with this production.

Two Cambridge educated ornithologists, Robert (Ben Turner) and John (Thomas Arnold), have come to conduct a month-long study of a rare sea-bird, the Fork-Tail. They have been sent by the Ministry of Defence and initially, know nothing of the sinister nature of the Ministry's intentions. Their hosts and caretakers for their stay are stern, puritanical tacksman, Mr Kirk (Ewan Hooper) and his beautiful young niece, Ellen (Ruth Everett). When Kirk dies, Ellen finds herself brimming with a new-found freedom and her relationship with the two 'birdmen' develops.

Ewan Hooper is a weighty, commanding Kirk. Hooper's character had a strength and an infinite authority over his younger companions which lends a dignity that makes for an achingly emotional death-scene.

Ben Turner's Robert is brimming with passion for the work that he loves. He sees in the birds he studies all the drama, vitality and ardour of nature, and Turner has Robert turn in a moment from endearing exuberance, through incensed rage, to a final heart-wrenching despair. His character dismisses the artificial constraints society imposes upon nature, looking instead to the untethered liberty he sees played out in the lives of the birds he studies.

His friend and colleague, John, is the antithesis of Robert. Thomas Arnold gives him all that clipped, Cambridge veneer: he pays constant heed to the kind of social mores that have him apologising for bad language, ("Excuse my French") as he complements the unpalatable puffin they are served up. Even his blatant desire for the captivating Ellen, he holds in check; and holds in check; and holds in check. Until finally he crumbles in the face of that wild and 'natural' lust for life that Ruth Everett succeeds in encapsulating in her performance.

Everett is utterly compelling as the child-like, at times almost bird-like Ellen, who finds herself free from society's dictates as she is freed from her Uncle's stern eye. Her wide-eyed wonder at the world Robert and John represent is completely convincing and she delivers some of the best lines in the play with an open, clear-voiced beauty.

The sex scene is an awesome combination of the devastatingly erotic mixed with the agonisingly (and comically) human. Everett's Ellen revels in her moment, whilst John lies beneath her, wrestling with all the conflicting emotions and awkward exposure of a man's first sexual encounter: "It's a bit off-putting having a spectator on a chap's first go".

Outlying Islands is that much sought-after combination: stunning writing, intuitive direction and fine acting. It runs at the Ustinov until Saturday December 2nd.

Reviewer: Allison Vale