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Treasure Island (St Paul’s Church, London): Review

Treasure Island Come sail away. Harold Addo as Jim in 'Treasure Island'. Photograph: Courtesy of Hannah Barton.

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, Treasure Island has high-seas swagger in this unexpectedly dangerous and dark family adventure.

Helping his mother in a remote cliff side inn, Jim has always fancied going to sea and experiencing adventure. But when a pirate gets killed in their quarters, Jim comes across a much sought after treasure map and is then taken on a journey to an uncharted island. But the trip will turn out to be more dangerous than ever expected in this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale Treasure Island.

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Blind man’s bluff. Dafydd Gwyn Howells (front) and Dominic Garfeild (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Hannah Barton.

Adaptation

Iris Theatre’s family show is something I look forward to every year, after being privileged enough to review Alice Through the Looking Glass and five star Pinocchio. Dr Daniel Winder has a real knack for adapting shows that not only stay true to the original versions, meaning they certainly aren’t the Disneyfied versions we’re familiar with, but finding a dynamic whimsy that is just utterly captivating. But turning to a darker and more turbulent novel, Treasure Island was always going to need something bold and a willingness to embrace something quite different.

It’s not Winder doesn’t do dark: the fact that Pinocchio opened with the funeral of a child and looking at the twisted dangers in Alice Through the Looking Glass demonstrates that the bleak is not something Winder or his young audience are phased by. But it’s trying to find a similar sense of charm and charisma that is as sweeping and intoxicating as previous shows where there was plenty of lightness and fun, that is potentially challenging with Treasure Island. It’s a book full of death, difficult choices, and narrative twists galore, meaning you can’t really smear smother it in anything too cutesy as it would sit quite awkwardly. Yet Winder has struck a fantastic balance with incorporating a real sense of peril without undermining it with more jolly and child-like moments, meaning there is still a sense of exuberance and family fun in Treasure Island despite some of its more intense drama. Characters have a good balance of slightly silly to them, especially one like Squire Trelawney and Black Dog, but then there are characters that are crackling with intimidation, too, like Isabella Hands and the ever enigmatically charismatic Long John Silver.

The only problem is that, not being able to put in the heady glee that Winder has done so well in previous shows, means that parts of Treasure Island feel a little clunky and stilted at points, with some parts of the narrative rushing through quite hastily, or areas where narrative progression feels a bit strained to get its impact across without being too flat, and there’s little to distract from this. But this really is a criticism from an adult point of view. Even though the grown-ups might not find it as polished as shows Iris Theatre have done before, the children in the audience still remain engaged throughout, with very little fidgeting or boredom setting in.

Treasure Island is certainly a bold punt, and it’s one that has paid dividends for Winder because it really feels like a confident and intuitive show despite it’s slight stumbles. If your children want a bit of sea-faring action this summer, Treasure Island really is quite the family theatre event that won’t fail to turn you squibs into swashbucklers!

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Ghost of a chance. A g-g-g-GHOST in ‘Treasure Island’! Paranormal photography by Hannah Barton.

Direction & Production

The direction and production of Treasure Island is what really marks this show out as a spectacular summers show. Valentina Turtur pulls out all the stops in the set design. There are things like a full blown ship docked in the gardens of St. Paul’s church, all built with an imagination as large as the structures themselves. It’s a real jaw-dropping moment when you walk out into the open space and see these fantastic towering structures looming in the near distance. Turtur has really capitalised on the potential for making something larger than life that will impress land-lubbers of all ages, making this a truly unique and memorably theatrical event.

Candida Caldicot once more pens a fantastic original score of songs and music for Treasure Island, really lifting and pushing an energy as well as helping to pick out more subtle emotions in the process. The song aboard the Hispaniola as it sails halfway around the world, is really quite haunting and rousing, and not something you’d expect to be so complex and striking in a family show. Benjamin Polya’s lighting design and Filipe Gomes’ sound design also work incredibly well together to make striking moments of supernatural intrigue, as well as dazzling climaxes.

The most interesting aspect of the production is Winder’s decision to make this a split immersive show. The audience are split into two groups, Privateers and Pirates, and each has their own version of the show. One group will go off and do their own thing against the other and the story continues without any backtracking, meaning you’re really thrust into one point of view and are really enveloped in one side of Treasure Island’s story. This also gives Winder the chance to put in these immersive and interactive moments where children can really get stuck into a bit of role playing, which is incredibly dynamic and the kids absolutely lap up. It’s a really ingenuous diversion from the usual linear and singular promenade story progression that they’ve done before, thus making Treasure Island a real trailblazing. This is also all done with Winder’s canny knack for pacing the promenade experience just right, with no scene lasting too long for comfort or too short to feel like it wasn’t worth the movement.

On top of that, Roger Barlett’s fight direction is goose-pimpling. There are full on sword fights in Treasure Island, with swords that clank and shing with voluminous verve, which is extraordinarily exciting for kids. There is a fantastic sense of slick and non-stop action that keeps everyone completely captivated.

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Seranading senors and senoritas. Anne-Marie Piazza (left) and Dominic Garfield (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Hannah Barton.

Cast

Iris Theatre’s cast are always an amazing group of ensemble actors. All engage and interact with the young theatre connoisseurs to insure they’ve never left out, but also bring an energy and life to the characters through a dynamic and camaraderie that is infectious. Nick Howard-Brown is fantastic as foppish and arrogant Squire Trelawny, bringing a real sense of eye-rolling idiocy and ambition to his character. Rebecca Todd as female doctor Mrs Livesey also has a great and yearning sense of duty and guardianship that brings a really soft and tender pathos to Treasure Islands themes of companionship and duty. Dafydd Gwyn Howells also has bring viperous and unpredictable camp to Long John Silver that embodies the strange sense of personality and showmanship that makes Long John Silver one of literature’s most memorable and enduring characters.

Stealing the show, however, is Anne-Marie Piazza as Isabella Hands. Her fiery Spanish savvy makes her an incredibly engrossing character to watch, but at the same time also on alert to the fact that she is a deadly as she is swaggering. Piazza really puts a sharp and lethal castanet snap of villainy into Isabella, turning this femme fatale into a lavish and unforgettable adversary.

Verdict

Batten down the hatches to ride the crests of this exciting and fearless adventure. Treasure Island is sought after family theatre booty indeed.

Treasure Island plays at St Paul’s Church, London, WC2E 9ED, until 28 August 2016. Tickets are £18 (concessions and family rates available). To book, visit http://iristheatre.com.