By Milan Perera, Critic Columnist
Treasure Island sealed the reputation of Robert Louis Stevenson as a literary giant in the 19th century. This adventure story has been the subject of numerous film, television and musical adaptations. The groaning indictment “Not another one!” is totally valid at the face of countless adaptations. But prepare to be amazed. Prepare to be surprised. This is not another two-dimensional adaptation but a rip-roaringly hilarious retelling of the literary classic for all audiences whether they are seasoned theatre goers or complete novices.
The stage adaptation of Treasure Island by the Exeter based theatre collective, Le Navet Bete is a delightful concoction of physical theatre, pantomime and Broadway musicals. It is further sweetened with light-hearted references to television shows and advertisements. The theatre collective takes a considerable artistic licence in adapting the 19th century classic and hence the audience was kept on tenterhooks till the final scene.
The action for the evening unfolded at the newly renovated main theatre of the Bristol Old Vic. The story revolves around 14-year-old Jim Hawkins (played by Nick Bunt) who lives with his grumpy aunt at the family run pub/inn near Bristol. Being the subject of constant nagging and lampooning, Jack is frustrated with his lot in life where everything seems to be stagnant. It all changes when a certain Billy Bones walks into the pub and pays for bed and breakfast upfront. His tall tales of seafaring adventures intrigues young Jim. But due to an unforeseen set of events Billy Bones is murdered and Jim Hawkins is the keeper of a map which would lead him to untold treasures in the Caribbean. Could Jim shake off his hapless disposition and embark on a treacherous voyage which would bring him both fame and fortune?
Where is Jim’s ship? Simple. Go on a quiz show and win a ship! Jim Hawkins wins a ship in a game show curiously similar to “Play Your Cards Right” hosted by the late Bruce Forsyth. Acquiring a ship is only half of the challenge and he needs to recruit a crew and a captain. The one-legged pirate, Long John Silver (Al Dunn) and Blue Peter (Matt Freeman) are chosen for the crew while Captain Birdseye (Simon Burbage) has the unenviable task of steering the ship. They are ably assisted by the Amazon bought parrot, Alexa!
The turbulent journey is both epic and coming-of-age for Jim where he overcomes the treacherous scheming of his ship crew who sent him overboard. Jim is rescued by a beguilingly charming mermaid (Matt Freeman) and on the shores of the island Jim is greeted by the friendly native, Ben Gunn (played again by Matt Freeman).
The four-men cast alternates between various roles and accents seamlessly. The stage setting by Fi Russell is both detailed and versatile, as the central wooden box could be turned into a ship or a pub in few seconds. The costumes are both vibrant and humour-inducing. Blue Peter was dressed as the sailor from Jean Paul Gautier advertisement who is exuding with parody, pastiche and double-entendre. The parrot, Alexa is an unmistakable homage to the annoyingly familiar assistance voice who seems to provide irrelevant information. Immediately after the interval Jack Hawkins seems to be swimming under sea, recreating a scene from Finding Nemo. Captain Birdseye is a sadist who is harbouring a secret. His method of fish finger production in the ship is both hilarious and menacing. Those of us who are slightly squeamish might think again before consuming fish fingers in future.
The scripted prop malfunction was both endearing and raucously funny which had the audiences in stitches, especially younger members. The cast routinely broke the fourth wall and engaged with the spectators. Even the friendly heckles were responded with grace and charm.
Directed by John Nicholson, Treasure Island had its premiere at the Plymouth Athenaeum in 2019 but even in 2022, it has not lost its quick wit, jarringly wholesome humour and freshness. The versatility of the cast is noteworthy, but Matt Freeman is in a league of his own, switching between contrasting characters with ease whether it is a chastising aunt, a sexy sailor, an adorable mermaid or Alexa the parrot.
Riotous applause at the curtain call was a seal of approval from a thoroughly entertained audience. The cast members were seeing talking enthusiastically to the audience members after the performance, who seemed to have taken them to their hearts. Even the constant badgering for selfies and autographs could not irritate them. Their love for the theatre goers is both sincere and heartfelt.
Featured Image: Milan Perera
Treasure Island runs at the Bristol Old Vic from 19-30th of July.