Arthur Darvill stars in the National Theatre's Christmas offering this year, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel of pirates and adventure.
Those salty buccaneers Polly Findlay and Bryony Lavery have taken Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate story by force, and given it quite the refit. The imaginative writer/director team has turned Stevenson’s classic boy’s-own adventure story into a big mad scary gothic feminist coming-of-age panto, anchored by stupendous special effects – and a plucky hero who’s actually a heroine.
At Christmas, you can rely on the National Theatre to open its vast subsidised treasure chest and fling all its resources into a spectacular that resets the compass of tradition but is also genuinely fun for all the family. This year is no exception.
Lizzie Clachan’s design is worth the modest ticket price alone. From the planked wooden stage, an extraordinary ship rises and tilts beneath a dazzling canopy of artificial stars. After the interval, when Jim (or should that be Jemima?) and her naval friends and pirate foes have reached their accursed island destination, the stage is framed by a grove of wooden spars, like the bows of a wreck or the ribs of a broken-hearted giant.
‘Treasure Island’ boasts pace, daring, gruesome comedy and scary tattoos. But the story and the relationships feel scattered to the winds. That’s largely because the man at the centre of them – literature’s most compelling pirate, Long John Silver – is a bit of a let-down. Arthur Darvill looks the part, with his Jack Sparrow locks and debonair style. But he’s so bland he’s upstaged by his own sinister animatronic parrot.
Elsewhere, the ensemble is superb, especially when the women wear the breeches. Patsy Ferran is a brave, emotive girl Jim, Helena Lymbery brings solidity and moral courage as the ship’s doctor, and Claire-Louise Cordwell as Joan the Goat manages to be even more brutish and funny than her male pirate companions. If only its creators had added Long Jane Silver as well.
Let’s hope that 2014, with another superb all-female Shakespeare production that just wrapped up at the Donmar, goes down as the year that gender-blind casting, like colour-blind casting, began to be standard. Now that would be a truly spectacular new tradition to hand down to our adventurous children.