Treasure Island at the National Theatre – (P)review

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Shiver me timbers, what a set design and a jolly roger of a fun show. Of course, producing Treasure Island – that first eponymous of pirate tales – must stand against the many years of ooh-arrs and black spots and all the other things that have been imitated in popular films and fiction. Bryony Lavery’s ship shape Christmas production for the National handled the potential for cliché particularly well, by poking fun at itself where necessary. Bounteous gags were the show’s real bounty.

Another treasure was the attempt at some gender equality casting, although to sum it up the women in the play were Jim (Patsy Ferran) our magnificent, boyish narrator-hero; a wisecrack nutty grandma; a crazy pirate; a pie-loving fool; an explosive españolita; a righteous neighbour; a silent crew member (until grief gives her a voice, sorry spoiler) and the ship’s doctor. There were still lots of men on stage in a big cast production.

Landing surely ashore then on the men, Arthur Darvill as Long John Silver anchors the production with kindly devilry although not creating very much fear. But we get the feeling of betrayal with him – as betray he inevitably must. All the other men – toff ship owner, self-righteous ship’s captain, various pirates – were great. Nuff said.

The first half didn’t resonate for me at all – nothing caught my heartfelt attention, no character inspired me. The revolve was the most sublime character in this production of expensive tricks (a particularly fantastic parrot; a three story ship that was intricate as a doll’s house; island tunnels through the revolve that looked just SO MUCH FUN – please can I dive in?) Lizzie Clachan deserves treasured applause.

But the music – sea shanties, a kindly-greying violinist, chorus voices and then some orchestration – didn’t meld, or fit, or even move me in the first half. Perhaps one shanty did in the second. I’m going to break my (p)review rule, in fact, to say that I didn’t feel the sound mixing was right yet – at times I wanted the music to soar much louder and quite often voices were lost. Then there was silence when the stage was gasping for music – the opening for instance. Jim didn’t have the enigma to enrapture the entire Olivier Theatre, alone on stage. Then there was an odd section aboard ship where everyone seemed to be crashing around, as though in turbulent waters – but Jim’s narration, quick as a skipper, breezed right on past the incident without comment.

The stellar scene for me was a touching duologue between Long John Silver and Jim, at night on the ship with Jim learning to read the stars in terms of saucepans and her Grandma. Beautiful gentle lightbulbs (à la Frankenstein a few years back) diffused up into the auditorium, enlightening Jim’s mind with latitude and longitude.

You’ll go see this show because it’s the National’s Christmas show – you want to be blown away by ridiculous feats of engineering and design plus you know it’s a good safe laugh that you can take the kids to. But this isn’t a War Horse or a Mother Courage – this time they didn’t quite do it for me. The treasure on this island lacked the sea breeze to really bring it home.

Runs until 8 April 2015 at the National Theatre. Broadcast live on 22 January 2015.

*Treasure Island was in previews when I saw it in on Thursday 4 December. Therefore, this blog stands as a (p)review and will not significantly take into account slight tech issues or slickness, which will come together by press night.