Ladies and gentlemen! In the red corner, weighing in at three weeks, a run of solid and entertaining plays leading to a happy reviewer! In the blue corner, weighing in at nine months, a continual run of disappointment from the Theatre Royal Haymarket! Which of these giants will win?
The answer, if you’ve read any of the papers lately, is obvious: the Haymarket curse strikes again, this time intruding on what should have been an exciting adventure romp and leaving it with two hours of tepid, uninspired mush where one of the great pirate tales ever written should have been.
I’m not going to bother getting into the plot as I'm presuming that most readers here will have a familiarity with the Treasure Island story either from the original novel or some form of reinterpretation, be it the 60’s Animal Treasure Island cartoon, the Muppet version, or any other edition of your choice, and therefore spoil at will.
It all goes wrong starting with Ken Ludwig’s script. In another case of “why show or visualise what you can narrate,” protagonist Jim (charmingly albeit not boyishly played by Michael Legge) tells us everything: his feelings at making his first kill, his fears, how the boat moved, and so on. For example, Jim tells us in a narration that he cut the Hispaniola’s anchor but then it comes up again in the dialogue moments later in a redundant display of redundancy.
Next there’s the music. While Treasure Island is a play with a few songs, it has a mere two or three which are repeated constantly. I’ve got more pirate songs (even public domain ones) on my iPod than were used in the show, and that’s just a handful of Jolly Rogers tracks I found on Audiogalaxy over five ago. More shanties, less repetition. This production also deserves an award for sound effects overkill, from the blind man’s staff getting an extra electronic bang to heartbeats and a mechanical bird whose gears we can hear spinning away in the stalls.
Third, the swordfighting. The first fight scene was wisely choreographed in the dark with occasional flashes from a lantern for a worthwhile reason: besides looking cool it covered up the fact that what we did see of the fighting was pretty bad. Fortunately the big fight scenes in the second act look significantly better.
And then we have the design. I liked the wooden floors and ropes and jungle bits and bobs because they had the right feeling: ship, jungle, old inn, all good. The suck factor comes from Dan Kugels’ video projections, which reminded me of another show I’d seen through the entire first act even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Only during the interval did the realisation dawn on me: the projections were of the same types used in Lestat. This, by the way, is not a complement. Do we need to see spiders flash on the wall when Jim describes his nightmares of blind pirates? No. Do we need to see red blobs when Billy talks about his heart going? No. Do we all the same? Yes.
Finally, there’s the cast. They’re trying, heaven help them, but most of what they’re trying to do is keep their pirate-y accents which is about all they really *can* do given the slightness of the ensemble’s characterisation. It is mandatory, however, to give Keith Allen credit for being every bit the smooth talking fellow Long John Silver needs to be, living up to his star billing.
As I left the Haymarket, thoroughly battered, the question on my mind was “why?” As in “Why did they bother?” I wasn’t bored by Treasure Island, but I wasn’t impressed or charmed by it either: the show was, as a good friend of mine puts it, beige. What’s said is how much I wanted to like this: I love pirate stories (pirates > ninjas any day) and even found myself amused at the ill-fated Peter Pan: El Musical, but Treasure Island gave me nothing to walk away with: it’s 100% bland, empty, and forgettable fare fine for community and AmDram companies looking for a low-rent show over the holidays, but as a West End alternative? Save your pirate plunder for the punchy pair of Peter Pan pantos in Croydon and Richmond instead.
Where: Theatre Royal Haymarket
When: Until 28 Feb., W-Sa @ 19:30, Tu @ 19:00, W/Sa @ 14:30, Su @ 15:00
How Much: £20-45
Concessions: Seniors £20 matinees best available booked in advance, students £20 upper circle on the day, family discounts available.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5. This isn’t a worthless production that’ll eat your brain alive, but there’s no reason to pay either.
RZ Other Notes: I was under the overhang from the circles so I don’t know how filled they were but the stalls were rather deserted. If you do go, keep an eye on the start times because they’re all over the place - I forgot last night’s show was at 19:00 until I checked my booking at 18:10 and made it to the theatre with just enough time to use the gents’ before taking my seat.