“Treasure Island” – Bristol Old Vic

Crysse Morrison in the West Country

Remember reading Treasure Island as a child or quite possibly as an adult? This is a coming-of-age story about buccaneers, buried gold, pirates, and a parrot. Exeter’s physical comedy theatre team, Le Navet Bete, have revived their popular version for a tour with venues including the Bristol Old Vic.

 

The ensemble. Photo credit: Matt Austin.

 

All the original elements are here except the parrot is now called Alexa and is just as inept as the Cloud-based information system of the same name. Many extraneous characters are also integrated including Captain Birdseye and an erotic mermaid who steals every scene – a difficult task as the four multi-tasking performers are almost equally excellent.

Writer and director John Nicholson has somehow retained the key element of the story – an innocent young hero seeking buried treasure – throughout the hilarious mayhem. The plot progression is steady even when the narrative we are watching appears to depend on the outcome of a game of “Play Your Cards Right” involving members of the audience!

Nick Bunt takes the role of innocent Jim Hawkins and the other three members of the cast multi-role so much that the programme simply adds ‘and more’ to their main characters. Matt Freeman injects a great deal into a memorable mermaid, Simon Burbage adds to the chaos as Captain Birdseye with Al Dunn being wickedly devious as Long John Silver.

As the programme notes admit – or rather, boast – the action is “irreverent, anarchic, and screwball” but it’s also somehow true to the essential spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novel written in 1883 as ‘a story for boys’ with a sense of sweeping landscapes and subtle moral instruction for youngsters if they choose to absorb it along with the daredevil escapades.

 

The ensemble. Photo credit: Marc Dawson.

 

Once the mood is set, certain links with the original plot loosen, others tangle and others remain demonstrably intact. The cast set about interacting comedically with each other and with the audience to make the whole show a giant party. There is much comedic wordplay as when the three missing crew members turn out to be called “Who?”, “What?” and “I Don’t Know.” There is also astute media parody, notably a Titanic moment with Jim flying at the bow like Kate Winslet. I cannot readily remember hearing an audience laugh so heartily.

This is a show to delight all ages, whether the cultural references are recognized or not. It has remarkable energy and warmth with the cast conjuring up empathetic personalities for us.

The overall effect is in part due to Fi Russell’s enterprising set design which was required to do as much multi-tasking and role-changing as the actors (and like them also sometimes collapsing hilariously). The set build is by James Andrews, Rhiannon Cheffers-Heard and Backdrop Design with atmospheric lighting design by Alex Best which helps to generate the excitement. The high-energy, multi-varied, sound design is the work of Peter Coyte who also excels with ballet and film projects and has a reputation right across the arts sector for being a team player.