NEVILLE'S ISLAND
Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 3 October, 1994

Surely by now it's unfair to call Tim Firth an "Ayckbourn protégé"; at 29 he has a television film (Money For Nothing) and two series (All Quiet On The Preston Front and the less successful Once Upon A Time In The North) under his belt, and has graduated with honours from the nursery of Mr. A's Stephen Joseph Studio in Scarborough. The format of his West End début, directed by one-man theatre factory Jeremy Sams, is similar to those of his erstwhile patron adroitly crafted comedy in the first act gives way to a dark and genuinely disquieting underside after the interval but Firth has a voice of his own.

He economically, and almost plausibly, establishes his premise: that four middle-managers on an outdoor team awareness development course can become marooned on an islet on Derwent Water for two days. His characters constitute a useful assortment of types: Neville, the team leader whose inability to see the plain truth turns out to be a paradoxical blessing; Angus, the anal, domesticated nerd whose survival pack even includes a dinner suit and a choice of chopping boards; Roy, vacuously born again after a don't-mention-the-breakdown episode in his past; and Gordon, the sarky git whose acerbity fuels most of the early humour.

This last character is a gift for Tony Slattery, who gives free rein to the obnoxious side of his persona: glares of brooding incomprehension followed by savage yet still funny Molotovs lobbed at the defects of his companions. The second act's inexorable burrowing to the characters' cores adds a further selling point by showing us what many have wanted to achieve at one time or another Slattery in helpless tears of humiliation.

It is apparent almost from the outset that a clutch of uncomfortable revelations are in prospect and that the comedy of inanity (at which the script excels) will ebb; this is a thirtysomething northern Lord Of The Flies, after all. Such subversion of dramatic formulae is itself formulaic by now. Firth, however, not only attains moments of a Brian Patten-like lyricism during this phase, but first and foremost he goes for the soul-baring with a ferocious will bordering on sadism, withholding either narrative resolution or emotional catharsis from the audience. As Angus retreats into fretful catatonia at being a useless middle-class cuckold and Roy the skeleton in his psychological closet all a-clatter retreats in his underpants up a tree with an 18-inch knife, repeatedly bellowing the first line of Oklahoma!, the defiantly continuing laughs serve to heighten our discomfort rather than let us off the hook.

As happy-clappy Christian-turned-Ancient Mariner Roy, Michael Siberry at last gets a part which doesn't care about his rich brown, resonant voice and just lets him act; Paul Raffield's Angus is a model of frustrated banality (and also, incidentally, the only performance with a consistently authentic Salford accent - oh, for a dialect coach). Jonathan Coy is so skilled at underplaying that he gives Neville, the undistinguished centre of events, few noticeable traits at all apart from a befuddled amiability. (That remark, by the way, is a compliment.)

Lez Brotherston's remarkable set of tangled timber, gravel and even a corner of the lake, around which the actors trudge and squelch with increasing mania, is an apt environment for a play which resolutely refuses either to subside at the last into easy laughter or to plonk sententiously into the realms of earnestness, but straddles both registers like a grimly cackling bastard.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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