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O, Island! at RSC's The Other Place – review

Nina Segal's play has premiered in Stratford

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Jade Ogugua, Joe Barber, Linda Broughton and Tim Treloar in O, Island!
© The Other Richard

It would be interesting to know how long Nina Segal's modern-day fable of a play has been in development. Telling the story of a village cut off from the mainland by a rising river, and the political turmoil and descent into misrule that follow, it looks unmistakably like a Brexit play. Or, to be more precise, an anti-Brexit play.

I'm all for allegory – Arthur Miller does it brilliantly in The Crucible – but not only does this one feel out of date, it also delivers its message with a derivative style that feels unoriginal. With echoes of Animal Farm, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Beach and even The Wicker Man, there's little here that hasn't been seen or said before, and it doesn't add much to the debate. Bad people doing bad things are bad, its theme seems to be.

Having said all that, this Mischief Festival production at the RSC's Other Place makes a decent enough pairing with Ivy Tiller: Vicar's Daughter, Squirrel Killer. Together they explore the perils and pitfalls of communities too dependent on isolationism and hegemony and, in O, Island!'s case, pursue that concept to its extreme.

Milla Clarke's design, shared with Ivy Tiller, once again makes use of multiple layers, here even managing to evoke the rising river alongside the disintegrating village. Director Guy Jones employs the shifting scenery and props to reinforce the notion of civil collapse, while the cast of six endeavour to people the village with a misfit band of would-be islanders determined to get behind their new leader, the little old lady Margaret, in her increasingly autocratic quest for ‘community'.

Linda Broughton invests Margaret with a nice mix of sweetness and steel, while Joe Barber is excellent as the wide-eyed teenager Laurie, watching his world fall apart as those closest to him flirt with fascism. The story unfolds in the hands of documentary-maker Inge (Anna Andreson), who grows steadily more uncomfortable with her role as observer until she can no longer resist the temptation to take direct action.

It starts out as an almost absurdist fantasy, as the local MP – an over-the-top performance from Alex Bhat – is revealed to be an incompetent and self-serving grifter. As the water deepens, so does the subtext, although the leap from a duck pageant and cultivating the community garden to barbed wire and gun emplacements over the course of 90 minutes stretches credulity somewhat.

It's an interesting experiment in drawing political parallels with modern Britain and its extraordinary direction of travel – an effort unquestionably worth pursuing with all the dramatic potential of live theatre. In this incarnation, six years on from the referendum during which it could have offered a significant cautionary tale, O, Island! feels oddly out of its time.

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