Wednesday 19 December 2018

Treasure Island

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester

18th December, 2018

Is it pretend?

Yes, but the feeling’s real

Leicester’s Haymarket played a formative part in my early exposure to theatre. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, I came to the Haymarket with school and my family to see Pinocchio (in the studio), Peter Pan, The Witches, The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The same with my girlfriend who also saw Singin’ in the Rain, Charlotte’s Web and The Borrowers. I was also acutely aware of the theatre’s history as a producing rep and pre-London tryout house from the seventies onwards: Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson in Me and My Girl, Anthony Hopkins in M Butterfly, and Peter Bowles in The Entertainer. And then in January 2007, it closed after a final Christmas show of The Wizard of Oz (which featured a jazz club singing lion from what I remember). Since then, we’ve been lucky to have Curve in Leicester, but the Haymarket has been going to waste sitting as an empty shell above a shopping centre.

This year, after a reported £3.6 million refurbishment, it has reopened. Sandi Toksvig’s new version of Treasure Island, directed by Matthew Forbes, is its first major production. Toksvig’s self-referential adaptation is superb: she has a pragmatic approach to adapting a challenging text for the stage, one which strips theatre of any reverence and makes it immediately accessible. She has a direct approach to cutting out the long-winded bits of the novel and is not afraid to question some of the more problematic parts:

“Is it OK that only the bad guys are disabled?”

“No, but it’s an old book.”

This playful and engaging approach is where the whole production excels. Forbes embraces the idea of a new theatre, building the foundations of what an ideal theatre should be: a place for stories, make-believe, and magic.

A girl walks on a bare stage whistling. A single light shines and an old Wizard of Oz front cloth flies in. Rather cleverly, Toksvig instantly makes us aware of the links between theatre and a ship, from the ropes and rigging to the whistling and terminology. Simultaneously, we are in a disused theatre with leftover props and an old Cowardly Lion costume (which nicely appears later on to save the day), and at the start of imagining Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. Rebecca Brower’s resourceful design sees backstage scaffolding become part of the pirate ship and wooden crates create a tropical island. Theatricality is embraced even further through the addition of Dominic Rye’s excellent put-upon stage manager, a role which sees him running around the stage and live designing the sound.

Samuel Parker’s puppets are ingenious, both in terms of their design (especially the parrot) and how they’re brought to life by the cast and Forbes - his expertise on War Horse comes to the fore here. In particular, an islander in act two has a full song and dance routine, in which he is hilariously given his own personality by a team of three manipulating him. Elsewhere, Kat Engall plays Jim with a convincing balance of naivety and adventure; Joyce Greenaway leads the audience through the story and songs; and  Tanveer Devgun and Andrew Cullum get the most laughs, the former as the hapless Captain Smollett, first appearing wearing a ‘I went to RADA’ T-shirt, and the latter as a foppish ham of an actor.

As the treasure is returned, and Jim discovers his identity (involving a crisp projected cameo from Gary Linekar), after all of the dancing, a wedding and a happy ending, the stage manager clears everyone and we are back on the bare stage. The actress playing Jim looks disheartened that it’s all over. But the narrator reassures us that we can do it all again tomorrow - there will always be new tales of adventure to be told. Leicester has a blossoming theatre ecology this festive season. It was a pleasure to be back at the Haymarket to see this revelatory and ambitious production. We must make sure it doesn’t close its doors again.

Treasure Island plays at the Haymarket Theatre until 6th January.

Jules Brown in Treasure Island. Credit: Pamela Raith

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