Yo-ho-ho! A festive treat to Treasure!
Treasure Island Captain's Blog: Seadogs & Shanties
Dominic Cavendish is hooked on Treasure Island at the Theatre Royal Haymarket
Hit ahoy! With a rousing roar of "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum" and a deafening blast of musket shots, the Christmas show season got underway on Monday night as the Theatre Royal Haymarket launched the answer to every adventure-starved child's prayers: a racy, pacy, tough-as-old-boots adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling 1883 classic Treasure Island.
What with major news stories about pirates running amok off the coast of Kenya, and the ongoing popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise - itself indebted to Stevenson - the modern imagination clearly remains in thrall to the terrorising allure of that strange breed of man, the ocean-going vagabond.
Unable to compete with snazzy special effects, and unwilling to descend to the level of dandified, self-conscious camp embodied by Johnny Depp et al, this new version, scripted by Ken Ludwig, invests a gripping yarn with a genuinely rough-and-ready buccaneering spirit. It flies the flag for good old-fashioned ensemble storytelling.
At the helm of the lusty thespian crew assembled by director Sean Holmes hobbles the roguish figure of actor, comedian and renta-maverick Keith Allen, tasked with shivering our timbers as Long John Silver.
I've never bought into Allen's wild-man mythology, but he's perfect for the part, rasping his lines out with a voice as rough as sandpaper and charging every scene with a growling charisma. There's no funny business with a wooden peg-leg and strap here; instead, his right leg is encased in a metal cast, and - abetted by a mechanical parrot - he hauls himself about with the help of an extra-long, lethal-looking crutch.
At times, it's as if Holmes doesn't want the sweetness and light of our trusting young hero Jim Hawkins, played with winning vulnerability by Michael Legge, to prevail at all. The opening scenes revel in darkness, death and the daggers-drawn menace of sundry scheming ne'er-do-wells. Designer Lizzie Clachan uses appealing, faux-primitive monochrome projections to muster much murky atmosphere, while a folksy onstage band add a further note of anarchic authenticity.
It's the straight-faced sincerity of the playing, though, that hooks you. By the end, you're with the ruffians and the outnumbered good guys on that mysterious island, looking for the fabled treasure chest, and jumping out of your skin as plans go awry. X marks the spot of a bona fide festive treat.