Written by Debbie Oates
Directed by Joe Sumsion
Cast: Victoria Brazier (Polly/Dick/Captain Molly), Gareth Cassidy (Tom Morgan/Dad), Niall Costigan (Uncle David), Natasha Davidson (Jen Hawkins), Amy Drake (Mum/George Merry), Chris Jack (Iz/Israel Hands/Ben Gunn), Jake Norton (John/Long John Silver)
There’s something very refreshing about a family show that puts everything into appealing to children without ‘writing down’ to them or saving its best jokes for winks to the watching adults. Debbie Oates’ sparky and involving adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure for Lancaster’s Dukes Theatre certainly achieves this, making for an enjoyable night of daftness and derring-do in a beautiful setting.
Jemima (Jem) Hawkins gets picked on by the local kids, belittled by her older brother and ignored by her parents in favour of a new baby sister. When an old treasure map falls out of a copy of Treasure Island belonging to her enigmatic Uncle David, Jem suddenly finds herself setting sail from Fleetwood on The Hispaniola…
The local scallies who have been bullying Jem form the crew of the ship, and are played by members of the Dukes Young Company. These pirates are part Blitz Club and part Strawberry Switchblade (good luck explaining any of that to the children) and they’re a riot. The Victorian Gothic landmark of the Ashton Memorial is transformed into a punkyard pirate ship by the magic of theatre. The glades, nooks and panoramas of Williamson Park fit the drama extremely well, although the proximity of the audience to the actors during the Stockade scenes robs a very suitable setting of its atmosphere. Potentially exciting action ends up being played out against serried ranks of fleeces and cagoules.
The highlight is the climax as the Hispaniola is torn apart on a gorgeous moonlit lake. This is surrounded by wooded cliffs, a natural home to the swooping bats who become as much a part of the ensemble as the seagulls did to the earlier sea voyage.
The entire cast is energetic and impressive. Natasha Davidson makes a very appealing and easily relatable Jem, while Chris Jack is excellent as both a comic Israel Hands and a madcap Ben Gunn who speaks in rhyming couplets. Niall Costigan is resonant and memorable as Uncle David but the character’s place within the narrative is elusive and unclear. The standout performance comes from Gareth Cassidy as the tattooed, hyperactive Tom Morgan. Cassidy drew the short straw earlier this year by having the dullest character to play in Spring and Port Wine at Oldham, so it’s rewarding to see him given the chance to soar here as a larger than life pirate. His air of unhinged menace is as memorable as his physical comedy.
The play has just had its initial run extended and it’s not hard to see why. Great performances, skilful puppetry, catchy songs and stunning locations all help to make this enormous fun and an ideal introduction for children to live theatre. Above all the writing is extremely fresh, rather like a swashbuckling Shameless with clowning and parrots replacing the sex and drugs. Despite occasional sags (to adult eyes – the children were entranced throughout nearly 3 hours) this is an uplifting romp that feels very empowering to children in general and girls in particular. It’s a remarkably skilful piece, updated without awkwardness but still retaining the danger and thrills of the original story.