More of a play than a pantomime, Sean Holmes’ hugely enjoyable production of Ken Ludwig’s new adaptation of Treasure Island is a meaty, powerfully staged evening aboard the good ship Hispaniola, with pirates running up the rigging and Long John Silver taking time out to tell Jim Hawkins eight good reasons for peeling a potato.
Keith Allen’s Silver is a likeable cove, dragging his wasted leg behind him encased in a leather crutch-high boot, his trademark parrot (“Pieces of eight”) following an almost separate existence as a Toucan-toupeed tribute to animal animatronics.
Nothing here conforms to tradition or expectation: the parrot’s a parody, and Silver turns out to be an old friend of Jim’s dead dad – whom he unwittingly betrayed, having kidnapped - and an incorrigible quotation master of Shakespeare.
Thus Ludwig invents a new spine to Robert Louis Stevenson’s great story of skulduggery and gold-digging on the high seas, highlighting the repentant nature of Silver’s campaign and the innocent derring-do of Jim’s adventure. Patiently, Sean Holmes’ muscular production unpicks the narrative, starting with the rush of blood and thunder of hooves along the coastline by the Admiral Benbow.
With designer Lizzie Clachan and composer Tom Haines – there’s an onstage trio of musicians in sailors’ hats – Holmes creates a storm of declamation, fighting, confessional reminiscence and sheer high spirits.
Sometimes the sails swish down like a front cloth for a parlay with the audience. At others, they act as a screen for flickering projections of the Hispaniola, or a pulsating heart, or a ghost in silhouette, or a view through a porthole. The melange is sturdily rooted in the barrels, boards, fights, bangs and rope work of the overall production. You get a sense of a mysterious story as well as a magical theatrical experience.
Keith Allen makes no attempt to top the more florid performances of Paul Brennen as the wretched Ben Gunn, John Lightbody as both Blind Pew and Squire Trelawney, or Tony Bell as the avuncular Captain Smollett. But he builds a fascinating friendship with Michael Legge’s sprightly Jim Hawkins. It’s a performance carefully poised between slyness and self-regard, and it goes down a treat as the first, and no doubt the subtlest, pantomime villain of the season.