treasure cast

Treasure Island

Derby Theatre


Derby Theatre are remarkably proud of and excited about their latest approach to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Treasure Island. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s daring, it involves the audience in an extraordinary new kind of undertaking.

It is in fact the second time the company has experimented, both courageously and ingeniously, and in a very lively manner, with presenting a ‘BSL’ (‘British sign language-integrated’) show.

It’s a novel and intriguing kind of experience for most of the audience, for at any point one or other character in the show, major or minor, may pop up and be vividly ‘matched’ by fellow performers who are expert in delightful, characterful sign language, using it in parallel to reinforce the personality of any one of the main parts.

Sarah Brigham’s productions as the theatre’s Artistic director have indeed yielded many treasures, and her Treasure Island, as one might imagine, offers a great deal of teasing and fun. It requires deft moves and positioning, serious concentration by the matching ‘doubles’, considerable flair and determined precision to carry off the antics (and add periodic mystery) to events. Initially it might amaze an audience – but the experiment worked: those watching were drawn in, and soon relished and revelled in this beautifully conceived show.

There was another departure. Jim Hawkins, poor lad, got ditched. Instead we encountered a lively pair, April Nerissa Hudson and Raffie Julien, supplying us with a paired narrator (a girl ‘Gem’ not Jim), whose task it was to keep the show on the road. These two matched each other, the latter silently imitating so skilfully, and not just so appealing but so sophisticated performers, they were a joy to watch and hear every time.

robson pic

Garry Robson is a fabulous Long John Silver. Pictures: Robert Day

Many of the production aspects were delightfully and cleverly managed. The costumes, by Neil Irish, were sensationally beautiful, multicoloured and brought a joyous impact to the mass scenes especially. His sets – not least the dominating and attractive foliage on the island itself, once all had landed – were vivid, constantly teasing the eye. Ian Stapleton served up fights that were really rather believable, dramatic and vivid. Tim Skelly’s lighting, sometimes pleasantly static but elsewhere bursting into lively contrasts, was a treat. 

So, was all well? Perhaps not quite. If there was a setback, it lay in the earlier stages of Theresa Heskins’ adaptation. Some of the sign language additions were, as one might unfairly fear, distracting. While BSL became the main feature, so desirable and charming in itself, deemed to be an asset and certainly characterful, it reduced the flow and impact and, most importantly, the clarity of the narrative early on. The story element got slightly squas(hed. Turning Squire Trelawney (the enjoyable Nadeem Islam) into a continuous comic act didn’t really serve the cause to best result: rather, it distracted.

In short, we wanted Part One to cut to the chase quicker. Luckily Oraine Johnson’s forceful, boisterous Captain Flint did much to enhance these earlier stages. Curiously it was one or two of the raunchier, offbeat songs that stood out among events. Most obviously – above all - ‘Black Spot’, but others too were a dazzling success; while ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest’ gave everyone the chance to let fire.

Alex Nowak and Nadeem Islam

Alex Nowak as the demented and tormented Ben Gunn and Nadeem Islam as the production's comic Squire Trelawney

What lifted the show dramatically and impressively was when characters began to be given more substantial speeches which both generated atmosphere and gave acceleration to the storyline.

The obvious, or first, one came with the exciting emergence of Garry Robson’s Long John Silver. Disabled himself, Robson – an experienced professional director, and it showed - has as much stage command and presence as one could possibly ask for. His quality of speaking outshone everyone on stage, and the vigour of his personality suddenly galvanised the script into action.

If anyone rivalled or even outshone Robson, it was the astonishingly brilliant, wild, crazy, distracted performance of Alex Nowak as Ben Gunn. Discovered unexpectedly on the island, a gaunt, dotty castaway. Gunn calls for a thrilling, off-beat characterisation, and it certainly got it here. Fretful, animated, disturbed, weird, eager to play an important part in the proceedings, Novak produced a deliciously touching figure, whose yearning for cheese was one of the wittier touches of Theresa Haskins’ adaption.  

Not only those, but the second Act’s search for and pursuit of the treasure was a treat of direction from Sarah Brigham and her deputy, Emily Howlett. Long John’s vociferous, cackling green parrot, dubbed Old Flint (manipulated by Kai Bools and Charlie Ellen-Ayers) gained a life of its own, bossy and interfering.

Elsewhere, early on Rachael Merry (‘Mrs. H’) stood out, assured, insistent, quite commanding. Jim Kitson’s Dr. Liv(e)sey was a congenial cove, rather wise in his way, and doubly impressive when he turned his hand to being part of the onstage music: indeed one rearstage trio, in particular, provided one of the most stylish musical touches, varying from lulling to lively, in the musical score. Captain Smollet (Dominic Rye) was a straight-laced character, almost a relief amid the helter-skelter of Brigham’s well marshalled mass scenes.

All of those were ably produced, and each of the actors was allotted a carefully worked out, distinctive character. One of the most appealing of these was Becky Barry (Darby McGraw), who despite an excitable hyperenthusiasm that narrowly avoided overacting, was absolutely delightful; she buzzed with character, cheerful and alive in a childlike kind of way. Robert Took’s piratical Red Dog had some notable moments too, and was suitably decrepit when he reappeared as Old Pew.

So – an enjoyable evening? Of course. There was a cheeky, impish spirit that permeated the staging, aptly. and brought the show its delightful vivacity and zest. Everyone onstage clearly had a good time. And so, mostly, did the audience.

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Derby Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre