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Pitcairn (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Richard Bean's new play tries to cram too much into two hours

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Tom Morley as Fletcher Christian
© Robert Workman

What happened to Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers from The Bounty? That's the question that lies at the heart of Richard Bean's latest play Pitcairn – ostensibly about life on a Pacific Island but in reality about tensions at the heart of society.

Tom Morley's idealistic Fletcher Christian obviously pays heed to The Tempest's Gonzalo's words on the perfect commonwealth: "No name of magistrate… Riches, poverty, And use of service –none."

Bean examines how this vision falls apart, to its inevitable grim end. As Christian says, our natural condition is violence, lechery, drunkenness and greed. Morley captures well Christian's descent from utopian dreamer to double-dealing schemer, while Ash Hunter's Ned Young, Christian's fellow officer, is more sceptical of the dreaming. Hunter gives a nicely nuanced approach, outwardly compliant while looking to spike Christian's vision from the outset.

This decline to savagery is a theme that has been plundered many times by writers but Bean offers no new twist as an idyllic existence descends into violent chaos. Max Stafford-Clark's direction fails to grip, the unravelling of the society seems to take an age. What is surprising is that, pantomime-like, the cast encourages audience participation with a list of questions – it's not an effect that works, a bit like if Lear turned to the audience to ask which of his daughters he should trust.

The fate of the mutineers is a rich canvas to draw on as there are so many different accounts of their history. Bean plays fast and loose with the commonly-accepted version but there are plenty of ideas there – it's just a pity that so many of the characters are stereotypes: the drunken Scot, the violent Londoner and so on. There are clichés piled on top of clichés, the dramatic climax hinging on a plot device that is so hackneyed, I actually groaned.

For a play that seeks to examine the role of women in society, there's rather too little delineation of the Tahitian women. Only Siubhan Harrison's aristocratic Mi Mitti and Anna Leong Brophy's angry Walua demonstrate any sort of personality.

It's a valiant attempt to draw a picture of a society falling apart but perhaps there's too much packed into the play: in two hours, Bean covers social stratification, racism, sexual politics, the futility of religion, agrarian organisations and differences between English and Tahitian society. There's too much to cover and the heavy-handed stereotyping detracts from any points that Bean looks to make.

Pitcairn runs at Chichester Festival Theatre's Minerva space until 20 September before transferring to Shakespeare's Globe