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Treasure Island

Adapted by Karen Louise Hebden from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Rose Theatre, Kingston
(2009)

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Not quite Long John Silver: The Musical. But with a nine-strong male chorus of sonorous actors, director Stephen Unwin and his melody maker Phil Bateman have surrendered without a struggle to the temptation of introducing a melancholic or lusty sea shanty at every opportunity.

This is especially true throughout the first half, when plot momentum is regularly sacrificed for yet another tuneful, well-sung anthem delivered by a choral group comprising both the buccaneers and the gentlemanly treasure hunters of Devon, who by rights should be at each other's throats.

Making her second Christmas adaptation for the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Karen Louise Hebden stays commendably close to Robert Louis Stevenson's novel in word and deed, while updating much of the vocabulary by some two hundred years.

There is less sense of danger than there might be. But this clearly remains an adventure story with a moral: ruthless pirates versus gold-greedy toffs in a dangerous struggle between good and evil, plus a rite of passage for its young hero Jim Hawkins - a challenging role that young actor Harry McEntire plays to his strengths of stage presence, dash and cool directness.

Designer Paul Wills has brilliantly refashioned the Rose Theatre interior to create an Eighteenth Century backdrop of ropes, rigging, planks, tar barrels and the huge mast of a merchant sailing vessel reaching right up to the roof, while Ben Ormerod's atmospheric lighting plot puts us out to sea on a swirling tide even before the action begins.

Robert Newton's iconic, eye-swivelling "Jim, lad...." portrayal in the 1950 movie, a croaking parrot on his shoulder, created an avuncular, anti-hero Long John Silver that ever since has unnerved actors taking on the role.

Not so Richard Bremmer, who struts believably on a peg-leg and looks every inch the sea cook who could rustle up a nourishing plateful for the crew. But his performance works best as an ocean-going politician who can weasel his way out of life and death arguments with a bunch of cut-throat nasties, all the while chatting up the toffs - and it suddenly occurred to me that we were witnessing a sly, maritime Fagin plying his crafty trade on the high seas instead of the back streets of Southwark while reaching out a protective hand to Jim instead of Oliver.

Star performances also come from Daniel Goode as the bewigged dandy Squire Trelawney, who takes entertaining opportunities to strut his stuff in original ballads, while the solidly dependable Dr Livesey, strongly played by musical theatre veteran Peter Forbes, has a superb baritone solo number that gave me agreeable shivers.

But the happiest rediscovery was Keith Dunphy's cheese-mad Ben Gunn which, whether the actor realises it or not, looks and sounds exactly like that immortal performance by Spike Milligan in those far-off heydays of Treasure Island at the Mermaid Theatre.

Then circus-style performers were required to plunge dangerously from the rigging while Bernard Miles as a smarmy Silver grinned as he thrust home his glittering blade with the encouraging words: "Let it in gently, boy....that's the way to go." Yes, indeed.

Reviewer: John Thaxter