THE EXPRESS & STAR
THE BIRMINGHAM MAIL
Birmingham Stage Company plays it straight and presents a Treasure Island immaculately faithful to Stevenson. These are not comic pirates. Long John Silver (Gavin Robertson) dispatches a man in cold blood by a cruel jab to the neck with his crutch support, and the crumpled body remains on stage at the interval until the safety curtain comes down.
Jackie Trousdale’s versatile set, with its ramps and hiding-places, doubles as the deck of the Hispaniola and the island itself. Ropes twist and unravel magically on the central mast to become the branches of a tree on Spyglass Hill, and the rigging becomes a forest of lianas under dappled lighting. Swashbuckling fights and atmospheric storms at sea all heighten the tension.
Young Jim Hawkins is no caricature of a Boys Own hero. Iain Ridley plays him convincingly and without a trace of piety as a lad who always does the decent thing. The moment when he finds the courage to shoot Israel Hands is pivotal as a rite of passage from boy to man. It’s a gripping plot but it demands concentration, and a young audience seized gratefully on the cheese-hungry Ben Gunn (Christopher Llewellyn) as a welcome bit of comic relief.
IT'S rare for a children's classic to be brought to a new audience these days without someone deciding the author had a bad day while writing it and what the world really needed was not, say Treasure Island, but Treasure Planet.
Thus Robert Louis Stevenson was re-imagined by Disney a few years ago - complete with a cyborg John Silver, alien pirates, and fully rigged space galleons. But though Disney's ludicrous cartoon may have fared poorly at the box office, it seems to have timewarped the perception of the novel - causing the children to complain to friends that "we have to see this play of Treasure Planet which was a rubbish film".
If Treasure Planet failed to score, what will the young audience make of this un-dumbed down 19th century plot? Fortunately, they lap it up. The Birmingham Stage Company have come up with a back-to-basics production that sticks faithfully to the book, built around a single set, which is variously The Admiral Benbow, The Hispaniola, and Treasure Island itself.
The lighting and sound effects are enough to make you jump out of your seat as the cast simulate a storm at sea, the battle for the stockade, and other explosive moments.
Stealing every scene is Bafta nominee Gavin Robertson as Long John who comes across less lovable rogue and more serial killer. Will he still escape the gallows? Oh yes, me hearties. You can't mess with a classic.
By Mark Branagan
READING EVENING POST
The Birmingham Stage Company are well-known for their innovative, imaginative and successful on-stage thinking and with this adaptation of Stevenson's classic tale of derring-do they don't fail to make something special.
Although the nature of the script, dark and straightforwardly adventurous, doesn't allow the colourful range of their full talents to show - the astonishing puppetry of The Jungle Book or the zany edgy jazziness of the actors/musicians in Danny Champion Of The World - there are still glimpses of those particular strands of magic. Captain Flint, Silver's parrot, is a beautifully manipulated puppet which appears briefly on board the Hispaniola, and as with the Jungle Book puppets of two years ago the work is so fine that the puppeteer who is stood in broad sight waggling a stick and saying ‘Pieces of eight,' becomes utterly invisible in the blink of an eye.
The stage set, which transforms from a pub, to a quay, to the ship, to the island itself is a huge presence, feeling hugely weighty on the stage - with great timbers like a sea defence. And yet it is a labyrinth as well, allowing Ben Gunn to wriggle through it, under and over and round, as he hides from Jim Hawkins. With swing of ropes the rigging comes down and is secured in place, a ship's wheel is hooked on a spike and two ship's lanterns appear at the rear and the stage is a ship. Every time a man climbs the rigging the whole lighting rig above sways perilously, and the scene is covered with bobbing sea-light - it creaks, it sighs - and we're on the ocean.
Aloft in the rigging sea shanties are sung: beautiful voices with beautiful rhythms - providing a little relief to the shouting that takes up much of the rest of the play, and to the dark turns and twists of betrayal and murder yet to come. And this version of Treasure Island isn't tidied up, isn't bowdlerized and made pleasant for children - it's full of darkness and on stage killing, like the original book.
From the outset there is terror - Christopher Llewellyn's Blind Pew for example, who changes from helpless beggar to steel-willed strong-arm in an instant, before murdering Billy Bones by the delivery of the black spot. Brendan Foster's double turn of baddies, Black Dog and Israel Hands, the mutinous first mate, are as scary as they should be. And Gavin Robertson's Long John Silver is mercurial and devious, self-serving and duplicitously mercenary to the end.
On the other hand Squire Trelawney, the toff who bankrolls the voyage and declares himself Admiral, is played by Leo Atkin with something of the unwitting pompousness, at the outset at least, of a Leonard Rossiter's Mr Rigby.
The star turn though comes from Llewellyn's second role, as Ben Gunn. The moment when he meets Jim Hawkins, the first man he's seen for three years, is genuinely moving - effectively a crazy, wonderful monologue, physically expressed as much as it is spoken. Really great stuff.
Yet again, it seems, the Birmingham Stage Company have managed to make something uniquely their own, and for the most part of the first class.
by A.F. Harrold
THE NORTHERN ECHO
THIS entertaining version of the classic tale presented by the Birmingham Stage Company is a great incentive for youngsters to read Robert Louis Stevenson's action-packed novel.
The cleverly-designed set transforms from the Admiral Benbow tavern to the Hispaniola and then to Treasure Island itself with just a few on-stage adjustments, and the lighting adds greatly to the atmosphere.
The BSC company numbers barely enough to crew a Boat Race entry, let alone a galleon, so apart from the principals, each actor takes several parts. This caused some confusion in the young audience since the loyal sailor with floppy blond hair appears to come back to life as a pirate, giving a whole new meaning to the other side'.
John Cockerill is engaging as straight arrow Jim Hawkins, sticking to his principles even up against the charismatic villain, Long John Silver. Gavin Robertson gives the amoral Silver a cheeky chappie persona; Robertson himself credits Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine for his Cockney accent and I detected a bit of Brian Conley twinkle in there, too.
The opening scenes with Blind Pew, Black Dog and the pursuit and death of Billy Bones seem inexplicable, but once the treasure map is discovered all becomes clear.
There's enough action to hold the youngsters' interest, although none of them batted an eyelid when the skeleton sprang out of the ground, pointing in the direction of the buried treasure. I liked the well-sung sea shanties, too, which continued after the curtain came down, all the way to the Cricketers probably!
by Sue Heath
NEWCASTLE EVENING CHRONICLE
WE HEAR talk about raising boys' achievements... the cast of The Birmingham Stage Company and their production of Treasure Island manage to do just that and aspire to the top.
At the Theatre Royal, we had a strictly boys only (men actually) performance with not a frilly dress in sight.
This classic tale by Robert Louis Stevenson was acted out in a simplified version by a cast of 10 lads. A story full of the things young boys, and possibly girls, can only dream about, this performance had it all, swashbuckling pirates, buried treasure, dead bodies.
Gavin Robertson played a quirky yet fearsome Long John Silver and John Cockerill portrayed the character of Jim Hawkins magnificently and, rightly so, was everyone's favourite hero as he progressed from a naive boy to a mature young man.
Christopher Llewellyn, who was cast as the loony, lovable, cheese-loving castaway Ben Gunn, injected some much-needed humour into the proceedings.
This was quite a serious production so anyone who expected a ‘panto' version and was secretly hoping for audience participation with outbursts of "oo-arr me hearties!" may well have been a tad disappointed. Perhaps a couple of rousing sea-shanties may not have gone amiss. I personally wouldn't recommend it for the under-10s. There were parts which had some of the younger viewers gripping on to their seats.
A round of applause for the sound effects, especially the howling winds and crashing waves which actually gave you the feeling of being on the high seas. The often haunting soundtrack also added to the atmosphere.
Top marks go to the stage crew who set it all up. The stage doubled up as the ‘Hispaniola' and island, complete with ramps and lots of hiding holes. The ropes on the mast appeared to magically turn into trees when the set needed to be changed to the island setting. All the changes were transformed by the cast in split second timing.
All in all it was a gem of a pirates tale, full of non-stop action and adventure.
Shiver me timbers!
by Jan Stephenson
Treasure Island | More fun than a bottle of rum!
By Mike Levy
Ahoy there stage lubbers! Look lively and make ye way aboard HMS Treasure Island; more fun than a bottle of rum. A large first-night audience thoroughly enjoyed this well-told tale of swashbuckling treasure hunting, dastardly deeds and thrilling sea voyages. Birmingham Stage Company has produced a very fine version of Stevenson's great story with enough breathtaking theatricality to delight the child in all of us.
The biggest challenge in creating a stage play out of a famous adventure yarn is how you conjure a set of believable locations: the English tavern, the Bristol dockside, the ocean-going sailing ship and the fabled island itself. The production addressed these challenges with consummate ease and creativity: a mast of ropes becomes a tropical tree, rigging becomes a forest, the deck of the ship transforms into a sandy island - exceptionally clever.
The story was told at breakneck speed (sometimes losing a bit in diction and clarity especially with so many oo-aar faux Cornish accents) and revolved around the two leading characters: the upright Jim Hawkins played with great sensitivity by John Cockerill and Long John Silver, delivered with just the rations of attractive charm and vile villainy by Gavin Robertson. There are many other fine performances too including a truly demented Ben Gunn (Christopher Llewellyn) and the saltiest sea salt, Capt Smollett (Nigel Harris).
This is, above all, a hugely entertaining ensemble piece with not a weak link in its all-male cast: extremely athletic (much bounding, hiding, seeking and cutlass thrashing). The energy of the performance held the mostly young audience completely in the world of piratical treasure hunting. There are set-piece coups de theatre aplenty (watch out for a talking parrot, an animated skeleton and some scarily loud bangs). Whatever your age, if you love theatre, you will adore this thoroughly professional, extremely well acted and beautifully lit production: there is one moment when we 'see' the reflection of the island's treasure caught in a most wonderful golden glow - a truly astonishing effect that no movie could produce.
Aye, shipmates, there be treasure alright - but it's down in St Edward's Passage.