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Treasure Island Captain's Blog: Theatreland Ahoy!
Long John meets Shakespeare in a posh panto
By Michael Coveney
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
Here comes the holiday season's first posh pantomime. The American playwright Ken Ludwig's skilfully filleted account of Robert Louis Stevenson's imperishable adventure beefs up the friendship between cabin boy Jim Hawkins (a slightly over-age but immensely likeable Michael Legge) and piratical Long John Silver, to the extent of Shakespearean reminiscence over their shared devotion to Jim's dead father, and Jim's eventual donation of some of the treasure to the marauding fortune hunter.
Keith Allen – a fine, sympathetic actor better known these days as the father of Lily – buckles his swash as Silver with a gleaming golden tooth, a leather-clad false right leg – why not strapped up behind as other Long Johns have done? – a meandering crutch and an electronically animated parrot who spends only one scene awkwardly perched on his master's shoulder; a far cry from the Mermaid Theatre version of Bernard Miles and his ever-present squawky pelican, not to mention Spike Milligan's mad-as-a-hatter Ben Gunn. Arrgh, Jim lad, those were the days ...
Sean Holmes's impressive production lacks only laughter and nuttiness. It's a bit too serious, as if aspiring to be yet another Royal Shakespeare Company-style reclamation of a children's classic. The pirates, including a swaggering girl double act of Sharlene Whyte and Estella Daniels, suggest serious evil; Ben Gunn craves cheese like a mouldy mouse; and we're sucked into the story with flickering film projections, rumbling sound effects and the Madness-style interventions of an onstage musical trio (wind, percussion and accordion) in sailor hats. Technically, the show is a delightful surprise in the hallowed precincts of the Haymarket. Holmes and his designer, Lizzie Clachan (a stalwart of the Young Vic), have created a stage environment of ropes and rigging that serves equally well for the scrubbed deck of the Hispaniola, the quayside at Bristol docks, the defiant stockade and the caves, crevices and coastline on the island.
There are loads of loud bangs, terrific fights by Terry King, and a recreation of such famous moments as the plot overheard in the apple barrel, the fiery confrontation with Israel Hands (Matt Costain) by Jim lad, the scary tap of Blind Pew's cane along the esplanade by the Admiral Benbow, where the plot stirs and thickens.
We are thrown fiercely into the squabble here, Tony Bell's rancorous and blubbery Billy Bones subsiding later into the reasoned West Country tones of Captain Smollett. It's as though there's a wicked-pirate audition going on: first Billy, then Black Dog (Paul Brennen, later emerging as a wheezy, slightly camp Geordie Ben Gunn), then John Lightbody's lip-smacking Blind Pew.
It's all a big build-up to Silver's sideways entrance at Bristol docks, where he lays low a felon with his vicious crutch while his trusty bird chirrups "Pieces of Eight". Allen develops a smiley, friendly persona which is only later undercut with his bitterness as a veteran sea-dog.
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest / Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum"; the tragedy of Captain Flint is re-enacted at the start, for this is a tale of ghosts and the living dead as much as it is of a young boy's dream.
A big chest sits centre stage. Inside, there's an accordion. The story comes to life, as the wind blows through the big sheets of the sails and the sails in turn become screens for the pumping heart of a dying man, the shadows of a murderous horse and carriage, or the outline of a craggy, distant destination. It's a tough old tale, with a heart of gold, and Holmes and his crew take quality time, and some trouble, to tell it.