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Review: Treasure Island (Birmingham Rep)

Bryony Lavery adapts Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling classic

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling adventure is adapted for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre this Christmas by Bryony Lavery. And it certainly is an adventure - with pirates, conspiracy, murder, ghosts, plunder and insanity all jostling for space in this action-packed production.

Lavery stays reasonably faithful to Stevenson's tale, although her biggest departure from the original plot is to make Jim Hawkins actually Jemima. Played with gusto by Sarah Middleton, Jim (she still gets called Jim) is a heart-warming character who lives in her own adventure-filled head. Keen to be the heroine of the tale, she pluckily takes on the grown-ups even when they are a deadly pirate gang. There's a running joke over the Jim/Jemima confusion and the gender switch adds another level to her relationship with the pirate Long John Silver.

Michael Hodgson is suitably dastardly Silver, a man capable of bewitching Jim while also stabbing her in the back. Ruthless to the core, there is something dangerously charming about him as he wins people over to his side by cunning or fear.

There is plenty of humour throughout this production. Alongside Middleton, Tonderai Munyevu's Squire is a buffoon and Nicholas Prasad is a Spanish speaking buccaneer as Hands. Much of the comedy hangs on the seaman Gray, who in this production becomes "Grey by name, grey by nature". The character is so unassuming, he is frequently overlooked by the rest of the cast, much to the amusement of the audience. Thomas Pickles is certainly pushed to the extreme as Ben Gunn, the former cabin boy driven to insanity by the evil he has witnessed and three years of isolation on Treasure Island. His dialogues with himself and desperation to return to a world of normality veer between zanily manic and deeply tragic.

Directed by Phillip Breen, this Treasure Island is nearly three hours in duration and feels lengthy for a family Christmasshow. There are certainly scenes which could be trimmed without the action suffering, particularly the story-setting at the beginning.

Mark Bailey's design is effective – taking us from the Admiral Benbow inn onto the Hispaniola ship and then onto the island with ease. Giant cloths, some bearing the skull and crossbones, drape the scenery and lanterns hang from the ceiling drawing the stage into the auditorium. There are some really clever touches using trapdoors in the floor which again add surprise to the production.

In many ways Treasure Island is a disturbing and gruesome tale and Lavery and Breen don't shy away from these elements but they have balanced the production with some lighter touches to bring it safely within the sphere of festive family entertainment.

Treasure Island runs at Birmingham Rep until 7 January.

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