The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Winter 2009-2010
The National Theatre's new holiday show is emotionally moving, theatrically inventive and thoroughly engrossing and satisfying, both for young people and their elders.
If not quite as wonderful as last year's War Horse, it certainly merits a high recommendation.
Adapted by Mark Ravenhill from a Terry Pratchett novel, Nation is a coming-of-age story with supernatural elements and moral overtones, that entertains its audience while according the young in particular the respect of assuming their intelligence and ethical sense.
A young Victorian girl is shipwrecked on a tropical island whose inhabitants were all killed by the same storm, except for a boy her age.
In a kind of anti-Lord Of The Flies they set up a new society, along with refugees from other storm-ravaged islands, built on their own inherent (and hitherto unsuspected) moral instincts and strength of character.
Repeatedly each is put in a situation their cultural inheritances provide no guidance for, and repeatedly each passes the test.
Placed in a position of responsibility he has been taught he is too young for, the boy rises to the occasion and becomes a good leader.
Given the magical opportunity to revisit the past, the girl rights a wrong that nothing in her upbringing, but just her own moral sense, recognises as a wrong.
Both are repeatedly lured by the island's death god, and both resist his temptations in the name of their earthly responsibilities. And here and elsewhere both have moments of great personal courage that add an element of boy's-own and girl's-own adventure to the story.
(The story's attractively modern feel is helped by not only the fact that the girl is a full co-hero with the boy, but also a plot turn that expresses respect for his native culture and another near the close that side-steps a conventional happy ending while still being fully satisfying.)
All this is presented in a staging that is both fast-moving and visually inventive, prompting recognition not only of director and co-designer Melly Still, but of designer Mark Friend, puppeteer Yvonne Stone and projection designers Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington.
Real and monstrous beasts come alive through life-size puppetry, while rear screens conjure up images of frightened birds, magical fish and the tempting underworld.
Gary Carr as the lad and Emily Taaffe as the girl provide warm, attractive and fully rounded characterisations that make us care for them and believe in them and their adventures, while Jason Thorpe repeatedly threatens to steal every scene as a cynical parrot with a sailor's vocabulary.
I saw Nation at a midweek matinee whose audience was almost evenly divided between school parties and adults, and sensed nary a fidget from either group - strong commendation indeed.
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