This year, Northern Broadsides have taken on the classic Treasure Island: a tropical adventure on the high seas, populated by pirates, buried treasure, intrigue, plots, and betrayal. With a compact cast of 5 actors - and one double bassist - doubling up parts, sharp definition of different roles is essential, and this is achieved to perfection, Adam Sunderland’s canny direction allowing neat transition from role to role for the actors, alongside masterful characterisation from the actors themselves.
Graeme Dalling’s fresh-faced Jim Hawkins is bold, earnest and believable, opening the production in true storytelling tradition, holding every ear captive as he draws us into the ensuing action. Long John Silver, one-legged ship’s cook and notoriously amicable villain, played by David Tarkenter with a mixture of charisma and hidden menace, is an appealingly persuasive Irishman. Morgan George’s turn as portly Squire Trelawney, the outspoken blabbermouth who commissions the ship Hispaniola for the journey in search of buried gold, is hugely entertaining, the near-lisp and resonant upper-class tones of his pontificating a great counter to Dr Livesay’s ironic self-awareness (Leigh Symonds), and Captain Smollett’s gruff, assured sternness (Andy Cresswell).
In Jenni Molloy’s skilful hands, the double bass onstage for the duration of the performance really becomes a character of its own, and her playing is often a vital contribution to the humour. The moment when the famed Jaws theme surreptitiously sneaks into atmospheric bowing is a classic example of the wit and flair with which live music is used here to maximum effect.
It is telling, that when the cast combine a fine range of voices, in jazzy, blues-laced harmony, to sing songs of the sea, the audience really sit up to attention. As the deep notes hover in the darkness, shanties like “What do you do with a drunken sailor”, and “Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum”, are not reproduced with stereotypical bawdiness, but sung with a sensitivity that enriches their atmospheric power.
Also worth the avid attention it receives from the audience is Treasure Island’s puppetry, developed under the expert direction of puppet master Lee Threadgold. Magical transformations take place, as seemingly ordinary objects from about the stage are brought together to create a whole new, carefully conveyed character controlled by various members of the cast, whether it be nasty blind Pew, who has a threatening, three-pronged fork for a hand, or a comical parrot, with forks for feet. Silent rapture greeted Ben Gunn’s transfiguration, as with a series of deft twists of cloth, the placement of a hat, and perceptive manoeuvring from the actor-puppeteers, the touching portrait of a crazed man who has lived on Treasure Island alone for three years is brought to life.
Andrew Pollard’s well-paced script is peppered with hearty buccaneer phrases and eighteenth-century idioms, like “noggin”, or “fish head”, kept from the novel. Although interestingly many of these, as Pollard mentions in the programme, which is appealingly scattered with jokes and puzzles for younger audience members to read, were made up by Robert Louis Stevenson himself.
Dawn Outhwaite’s set design is decked in teak: cupboards, a four poster bed, barrels and chests; it is garnered with an intriguing collection of hanging nautical objects, from flags, and rolls of rope to pistols. It is simple and practical, which is fitting as that is exactly as a huge sailing ship should be, and further, the perfect setting for what is a great work of imagination on Northern Broadsides’ part.
Northern Broadsides' Treasure Island rattles along nicely; an assured, inventive production, performed by a seriously talented cast, it is sure to inspire a widespread bout of good, honest, and above all, fun make-believe play in every child’s bedroom this Christmas.