In recent years a major Christmas pleasure has been the outstanding adaptations of classic stories by Derby Playhouse’s Joint Artistic Director, Karen Louise Hebden, always staged in a brilliant fusion of the verbal, the visual and the musical. Treasure Island follows in that tradition, but the packed house which greeted the Press Night performance with such enthusiasm was also responding to a much sadder scenario.
Unaccountable as it seems, it’s likely that this was probably the last night of Derby Playhouse’s Treasure Island – possibly the last night of the theatre. A few hours before the performance the City Council pulled the plug on financial support and the theatre went into liquidation. Against all advice, Hebden (director as well as adaptor) and her company went ahead with one final performance.
And a rollicking good performance it was, too, highly entertaining (as it would have been under any circumstances), but also uniquely moving. The adaptation is true to Robert Louis Stevenson’s original (the primacy of the book is an underlying Derby principle) and takes young Jim Hawkins on the familiar journey from the Admiral Benbow Inn to Treasure Island in search of Captain Flint’s treasure, under the tutelage of several distinctly ambiguous mentors: Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey and, of course, Long John Silver.
In other circumstances the production might have seemed tilted a little too much towards fun. James Head’s Trelawney was hugely entertaining – should he have been quite such a buffoon? Glyn Kerslake cut a striking figure as Long John Silver and established the bonds with Jim as completely as he charmed the audience, but I missed the ultimate frisson of menace. Gregory Gudgeon doubled Ben Gunn and Blind Pew with glorious eccentricity, Ben Roberts’ haunted Billy Bones was a prelude to his splendidly forthright Captain Smollett, Maurice Clarke brought a dry wit and a fine singing voice to Dr. Livesey and Daniel Hinchliffe’s short-lived professional stage debut was as a winning and expressive Jim Hawkins.
Sara Perks created stylish cut-out designs that, with the aid of a revolving stage, were pushed or trucked on, usually to the accompaniment of Johanna Town’s mysteriously shifting light patterns and Brian Protheroe’s shanty-based songs backed by an excellent quartet (Kelvin Towse MD) heavy with crashing percussion and lilting accordion. Protheroe also came up with several witty character songs, bordering on patter, all delivered with great aplomb.
As the capacity audience stood for an extended ovation, I couldn’t help thinking that this Treasure Island would have been the perfect show to warm the cold January evenings.