Robert Louis Stevenson
Written, directed and performed by Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone
Wee Stories Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Stevenson's first and most popular novel has never been out of print since it was first published in 1883, which is hardly surprising because it is such a wonderfully swashbuckling tale with a host of memorable characters, plenty of action and a hero with whom every young boy can identify. For a theatre company to bring to the stage Jim Hawkins, Blind Pugh, Ben Gunn and that almost archetypal figure, Long John Silver (along with his parrot), requires a large cast and a complex series of sets, not to mention a range of impressive costumes and props.
Wee Stories don't even try! Two musicians - a ukelele and double bass player (Andy Cannon) and a drummer (Iain Johnstone) are adrift on a raft after the cruise liner on which they were working sinks (some almost subtle hints of the Titanic here), and the only thing that stops them going completely mad - apart from their constant bickering - is Iain's favourite book, Treasure Island. Using whatever props they have to hand - bananas, bottles of champagne, a ukelele, a double bass, various items of clothing, boxes and tea chests, some candles and matches - they decide to act out the story.
In other words, this is story-telling. But if you go expecting a straight telling of Stevenson's classic tale, you will be disappointed. With madcap humour of the sort which appeals to kids (but, like all the best kids shows, it has another layer of humour which appeals to adults and goes unnoticed by the kids), they romp through the tale, with a fair amount of panto-like audience participation. Tonight's audience at the Theatre Royal were singing along with "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest" even before they were invited to and they gleefully gave themselves over to providing pirate crowd noises.
There are moments when the telling becomes a little more serious and to my mind these are less successful. This is possibly because of the size of the theatre: at around 1,300 seats the Theatre Royal is one of the largest the show is visiting. Only Her Majesty's in Aberdeen is bigger and most are less than half the Royal's capacity. I suspect the "serious" bits would work much better in smaller venues. An intimacy which is impossible to achieve in a larger theatre is, I think, needed for this aspect of the show to make its full impact.
The kids in the audience loved it and so did the adults who - again panto-like - were even more willing to join in than their children! And it does treat the classic tale respectfully. It's not a send-up - indeed, if anything is being sent up it is the two characters. Perhaps the ending is a little rushed, possibly because the first half could have benefited from being cut a little. There were no longueurs, but the audience's attention did flag briefly once or twice in the first half. But it was fun!
"Treasure Island" plays in Newcastle until Saturday 2nd April, and then goes on to Tunbridge Wells (Trinity Theatre), Brighton (Gardner Arts Centre), Aberdeen (Her Majesty's) and Coventry (Warwick Arts Centre).
Reviewer: Peter Lathan