island 4 

Sheila's Island

Derby Theatre


New modern stage comedy is at a premium, Sheila’s Island is a good attempt at rectifying that.

Billed as a comedy in thick fog it is written by Tim Firth whose stage writing credits include Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots, and The Band.

It is a reworking of Firth’s 1992 comedy, Neville’s Island, which I saw on stage, now twenty years old, originally commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn , and is adapted for an all-female cast with inspiration drawn from such diverse sources as The Office, Lord of the Flies, Deliverance and Miranda.

Firth, a contemporary of Nick Hancock and David Badiel, later found fame with Calendar Girls, but here the script still has a 90’s tint to it.

The four handed, all female cast, finds itself stranded, in somewhat contrived circumstances, working its way through comedy, horror, satire and psychological thriller with varying degrees of success

Liz Cooke’s island set is stark and austere with all the vegetation in silhouette stripped of colour and a neat use of water.

The advantage of the small single island set on Sheila’s island is an innate sense of claustrophobia, the down side is the action is inevitably confined and static. Bear Grylls led a survival series entitled The Island in which two teams, women and men, are stranded on separate islands and have to fend for themselves, the team dynamics between the play and television programmes are not dissimilar.

The play opens with the protagonists dripping from a wrecked boat, but the show is no damp squib. The mists roll in, contact with land is lost, blood appears and tempers fray.

Rina Fantina (Julie) steals the comic honours carrying equipment consistent with an assault on Everest rather than a Lake District weekend away.

 Judy Flynn as the eponymous Sheila gives a marvellous study of disintegrating neurosis. Sarah Crowe as Fay falls short in her lookout duties (surely a part in a Titanic play is called for) but excels in comic timing. Abigail Thaw as Denise is fed up with everyone very entertainingly.

island quartet

Sara Crowe, Rina Fatania, Abigail Thaw and Judy Flynn.

Picture: Craig Fuller.

But this is an ensemble piece, and every actor works hard to produce a team production rather than grandstanding their own comic cameos.

Act One is a fairly light–hearted and frothy affair, as the women become accustomed to their new surroundings, but the second Act veers into darker territory as adversity fails to bring the best out of them.

The plot can be a little clunky. It is difficult to be cut off from the rest of the world in the Lake District, and the one dead mobile phone, and waters around their island supposedly infested with deadly pike, require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief.

Director Yvonne Arnaud squeezes the most out of the comedy with the fate of their only sausage at prayer the comic highlight of the evening. Generically, the laughs are of the Men Behaving Badly variety.

The setting is Bonfire night 2019 and Sheila, Denise, Julie, and Fay are Team C in Pennine Mineral Water Ltd.’s annual outward bound team-building weekend. Marketing Manager Sheila finds herself nominated team leader, with her first act of leadership to be to strand her team on a Lake District island . Things do not improve for Team C.

Mobile batteries expire, cold and hunger set in, requiring the team to use their innovation, ingenuity, skills and inspiration to escape their predicament. Unfortunately these are in short supply. Even the play itself started late on the night due to technical difficulties.

Inevitably, character flaws are laid bare and tensions rise as Sheila battles to return her team of crack management back to safety.

Each Act is a fairly lean 60 minutes. Is Sheila’s Island better than Neville’s island? Yes. The all female cast has a dramatic edge on the male one, and twenty years on, Firth’s writing has matured and is as sharp as Julie’s eighteen inch knife.

Sheila’s island plays until Saturday 26 March and continues

Gary Longden


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