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Review Round-up: Pirates Walk Plank in Treasure

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Perennial screen baddie Keith Allen made his West End debut last night (17 November 2008, previews from 7 November) playing pirate Long John Silver in Ken Ludwig’s new stage adaptation of Treasure Island, which continues for a limited Christmas season continues until 28 February 2009.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 adventure novel – featuring “rip-roaring action, swash-buckling swordplay, battling buccaneers and hidden treasure” – has been adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig and is directed by Sean Holmes, recently appointed as the next artistic director of west London’s Lyric Hammersmith.

Keith Allen is joined in the cast by Michael Legge (as Jim Hawkins), Tony Bell (Bones/Captain Smollett), Paul Brennen (Ben Gunn/Black Dogg), John Lightbody (Blind Pew/Trelawney), and Dermot Kerrigan (Flint/Dr Livesy) as well as James Atherton, Mark Bagnall, Matt Costain, Estella Daniels, Branwell Donaghey, Howard Gossington, James Lailey, Mark Theodore and Sharlene Whyte. Sean Holmes directs.

Treasure Island is designed by Shunt’s Lizzie Clachan with lighting by Paul Anderson, sound by Emma Laxton and music by Tom Haines and Ross Hughes, performed by a live band on stage. It’s produced by Brian Eastman and Andrew Welch.

While Whatonstage.com’s Michael Coveney was won over by the “hugely enjoyable” night, most overnight critics left the Theatre Royal Haymarket feeling distinctly underwhelmed by the “largely inert”, “noisy” and “knowing spectacle”. Amongst over-acting elsewhere, Keith Allen won favour with several critics for “refreshing restraint” and “gangsterish charm” in a “creditable performance”. There was also praise for supporting cast members Michael Legge, Tony Bell and John Lightbody and for Lizzie Clachan’s “atmospheric” set design.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “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 … Nothing here conforms to tradition or expectation … Thus Ludwig invents a new spine to Robert Louis Stevenson’s great story of skulduggery and gold-digging on the high seas … Patiently, Sean Holmes’ muscular production unpicks the narrative … 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 … You get a sense of a mysterious story as well as a magical theatrical experience … Keith Allen’s … performance (is) 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.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “I\'m puzzled as to who this production is aimed at. It\'s arrived prematurely for the school holidays, yet I can\'t see child-free adults wanting to immerse themselves in this quintessential boys\' fantasy … What makes Sean Holmes\' production an assault on the eardrums is the frenzied style of acting. Each new arrival at the Admiral Benbow inn seems determined to out-roar his predecessor … It is a relief when we get to Long John Silver, played by Keith Allen, with refreshing restraint, as a diamond Cockney geezer with a plausible veneer of honesty. He is an oasis of calm in a desert of coarse acting … He may not be pure Silver, but he deserves a bronze for refusing to bellow. I worried about his parrot, however, who looked decidedly deceased. In an evening of broad-bottomed heartiness the other redeeming feature is the design by Shunt\'s Lizzie Clachan. She uses video projections well so that we seem to be looking at misty sepia memories of the Hispaniola on the high seas and the island is simply evoked through a jungle of trailing ropes … What we have here is a noisy, knowing spectacle that looks as out of place in this jewel of a theatre as a herd of bulls in a china shop.”
    • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Parents down to their last few pieces of eight should think twice before spending them on such an underwhelming account of piratical swashbuckling, which even Keith Allen’s anarchic spirit fails to perk up. Allen’s Long John Silver at least injects some life and colour into the largely inert proceedings … You feel that Allen is itching to let rip on all this prototype Boys’ Own adventure nonsense … but he is constrained by the uncertain tone of Sean Holmes’ direction. Like an ill-rigged mainsail, the production strains in a number of directions simultaneously, tacking now towards straight drama, now comedy. Even when mutiny strikes the good ship Hispaniola, there is a dreary sense that nothing is actually at stake … In the supporting cast, Tony Bell makes a pleasingly bluff Captain Smollett and John Lightbody stops Squire Trelawney just short of all-out pantomime camp. Even so, this Treasure is chocolate coins rather than real gold.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (two stars) – “You might expect Keith Allen, a pantomime villain in the BBC’s Robin Hood, to aim for peg-legged comedy as Long John Silver in this Christmas production of Robert Louis Stevenson\'s adventure classic. But the pirates are sailing under a very un-Jolly Roger in Ken Ludwig’s adaptation … Ludwig has aimed for the spirit of the Stevenson original … but his quest to recount chest-loads of the story, much of it in narrative voiceover by Jim himself, comes at the expense of building suspense and – towards the end – basic comprehension. Michael Legge gives a bright, boyish performance as Jim, but he is battling against material that can’t seem to decide what effect it is trying to create. Listless direction doesn’t help … Allen himself, equipped with a massive leather false leg and a robotic metal parrot, is more gorblimey than ooh arrr, playing the morally ambiguous Silver as a roguish East End geezer. With a gangsterish charm that separates him from the rest of the cardboard-cutout pirates, he gives a creditable performance … Another plus is Lizzie Clachan’s efficient and atmospheric staging, with hanging ropes suggesting both a ship’s deck and a tendrilled jungle.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times – “It’s not just that Keith Allen’s parrot is an unmistakably mechanical birdlet that sounds like a Dalek and never goes anywhere near his shoulder, or that his missing limb has become a big brown covering that variously reminded me of a huntsman’s boot, a leather suitcase and an old-fashioned coal scuttle. It’s that, emotionally speaking, his Long John Silver is too much Short John Silver. He’s fly, he’s sly, but he lacks weight and he sometimes contrives to sound like Tony Hancock with a sore throat … Ken Ludwig, who has adapted, doesn’t stint with the ferocious language — “I’m going to squeeze his neck until the pus runs out of his eyes” — nor does Holmes’ cast fail to be sinister. Tony Bell’s Billy Bones is suitably horrible, as are Paul Brennen’s Black Dog and John Lightbody’s Blind Pew … But the real problem is a lack of thrills. The language that Allen’s Silver uses to quell a prospective mutiny sums up much. ‘Shut up you dumb pirates’ wouldn’t stop a children’s fancy-dress party getting out of hand, would it? But it’s enough to reduce this lot to, well, children in fancy dress.”

      - by Terri Paddock

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