The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Winter 2014-2015
The National Theatre's winter family show is a big production that utilises all the Olivier Theatre's technical resources. But it never really catches fire, and offers at best an occasionally amusing but disappointingly tepid experience.
Adapter Bryony Lavery adds a 21st-century touch to Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of a boy's adventure with pirates by turning the lad into a girl named Jim, played by actress Patsy Ferran. (The Doctor and a couple of the pirates also change gender.)
Young Jim encounters a sailor running away from his shipmates because he's stolen a treasure map, gets the map, joins the local squire and (without realising it) the pirates in search of the island, has adventures and – spoiler alert – outwits the pirates and lives happily ever after.
In staging the story director Polly Findlay and designer Lizzie Clachan pull out all the stops, moving the action from a seaside inn to a three-level ship to the surface and caves of the island and back with the once-a-decade employment of the Olivier's multilevel revolving drum (traditionally underused because notoriously unreliable).
It's a tale of adventure and derring-do, and yet for too much of its length it seems to be just going through the motions.
Jim's talks to the audience as she narrates ought to draw us into the character and story but, despite the actress's skill and charm, leave us unmoved. The transformation of the set into a full-size ship ought to be magical, inspiring spontaneous applause, but it's just another set change.
A couple of sword fights seem perfunctory and awkwardly choreographed, too much of the humour – as in the Squire's pompous silliness – fails to register, the pirates aren't particularly scary, some of the special effects are damp squibs, and I wasn't impressed by the parrot.
It really isn't until after the interval that things begin to come alive, largely through humour. Joshua James's mad castaway Ben Gunn is satisfyingly loopy, with more than a touch of Gollum about him, and a running gag about a sailor named Grey who's so nondescript that everyone keeps forgetting he's there begins to pay off.
There's a satisfyingly loud and surprising explosion, but then one sequence that might engage the kids in the audience – trying to solve the riddling clues to the treasure's location – is rushed through, giving the answers before we've absorbed the puzzles, and racing on to the next clue before we've understood the solution to the last.
Patsy Ferran works admirably hard as Jim, but too rarely manages to connect with the audience. Arthur Darvill's Long John Silver, happily free of any hints of Robert Newton arrgh-ing, is also too lacking in either menace or magnetism.
I'm not asking for Panto-level broadness in the staging or playing, but a hint of a move in that direction, an acknowledgement that this is a larger-than-life Girl's Own Adventure and wants to be played with more spirit and fun, could only help.
I happened to be sitting with a group of teenagers to one side of me and a family with pre-teens to the other. The first were bored and fidgety throughout and the younger kids impassive, and neither offered more than perfunctory applause at the end. I fear that will be the response through the run of this Treasure Island.