The set is cool, really staggeringly cool. Our protagonist, Jim (in this production changed into Jemima) starts the play on a dark stage, closed in by the looming wooden ribcage of a massive ship. All around her are suspended hanging stars; the location is at once an astral and imaginary dreamscape and a lonely boat at sea on a dark night.
As a whole, the production is perfectly enjoyable escapism, if at times a little varied in quality. As is characteristic with National Theatre family-friendly shows, the stagecraft is absolute breath-taking, the set morphing from pub, to galleon, to deserted treasure island and back again with transitions that feel genuinely magical. A real highlight of the show comes when Long John Silver and Jim sit alone on the deck and chart the stars and constellations. I remembered the scene well from reading Stevenson’s classic when I was little, and this a perfect rendering of the moment. As Silver speaks, individual stars in the canopy of shining fairy lights become brighter so that familiar constellations like the big dipper and Cassiopea become visible to the audience in a fantastically theatrical version of a planetarium. Even on my low-res home TV, I blink and almost feel I’m actually on the sea at night, so I can imagine how striking the performance would have been in situ.
Jim, played by Patsy Ferran, gives a truly standout performance, her monologues carried off with a really genuine sense of excitement without straying into the irritatingly earnest or overtly pantomime-like. Although her sentiment that “girls need adventures too, Mrs Hawkins” is something that I obviously agree with, I do I feel at times that the slightly heavy-handed writing, endlessly signposting the gender-blind casting, is a tiny bit grating.
The play is exciting and honestly manages to keep up the suspension of disbelief that I’m actually on a piratical voyage, something which at the moment, is unbelievably welcome. Jim’s constant anxieties over her loneliness and isolation seem apposite too; much as I don’t think my family is on the verge of a brutal mutiny against me, the pressing feeling of cabin-fever while the crew is confined together both on the ship and later stranded on the desert island feels familiar. Sadly, I doubt that I’m on the cusp of unearthing treasure in the bottom of the garden.
If I was being picky, which I’m not sure I should be 4 weeks into quarantine, characterisation is at times a tiny bit lazy, opting more for copying from movie franchises than staying really true to Stevenson’s original text. Tom Gunn, for instance, is wonderful, sensitively juggling humour and a rather tragic fragility. In some scenes, this complex characterisation slightly breaks down however, instead quite obviously falling back on emulating The Lord of the Ring’s Gollum as he skulks through dark tunnels lined in treasure. Similarly, Stevenson’s mad, bad and dangerous to know Long John Silver is rather softened (maybe to be more suitable for a child-heavy audience) and both looks and speaks rather like a Captain Jack Sparrow as opposed to the rather coldly murderous figure that I remembered from the novel. Overall, if you’re looking for some light escapism with a hint of nostalgia, or honestly can’t hack revising for collections, Treasure Island is one to watch.
Treasure Island is available on the National Theatre YouTube channel until Thursday 23rd April, 2020.