Mermaid Theatre, London EC4
Opened 5 December, 1995

Sir Bernard Miles's productions of Treasure Island at the Mermaid have passed into legend; Glyn Robbins's annually-revived adaptation for Vanessa Ford Productions is unlikely to follow it, although it fares well enough at keeping large parties of children relatively silent for two and a half hours.

Miss Ford producer of numerous children's and Christmas shows, and currently for Roy Marsden's Pageant Theatre Company in its Mermaid season makes a couple of brief appearances herself, wringing her hands and voice as Jim Hawkins' mother and carousing as a whore in a Bristol tavern. However, in performance as in narrative, this is a classic boys' story, with its suspense, action and derring-do by young Jim.

Or rather, it ought to be. Disappointingly, Robbins's adaptation and Phil Willmott's direction are strong and compelling on narrative, but perfunctory on the action itself. Cutlasses a-plenty whirl around in several well-choreographed combat scenes (one expects no less from fight director Malcolm Ranson), but the dramatic tension remains on one note for most of the time. Suspense is not even cranked up by periodic billows of dry-ice across the stage although, coming as this show does so soon after BBC Television's latest screening of John Carpenter's underrated ghostly pirate shocker The Fog, one half-expects a series of eviscerations by a spectral hook.

Roy Marsden is really quite imposing as Long John Silver. He swaggers and growls, but resists the temptation to stump along the Robert Newton path; this is a supremely confident Silver, always in control and never betraying fear even in the face of a mutiny by his fellow buccaneers. And yes, a live parrot does make a few cameo appearances on his shoulder, although sadly it has not been trained to squawk "Pieces of eight!"

Barry Stanton puts his lungs into the role of Billy Bones, bellowing and spluttering for all he's worth, and similarly enjoys cranking up the pomp as Captain Smollett, aiming at middle-period Stratford Johns and almost attaining that impressive magnitude. Raymond Platt grabs almost all the laughs in the second half as the ragged, marooned Ben Gunn, begging in a febrile quaver of a voice for some cheese after seven years' deprivation on Skeleton Island.

Paul Basson conveys the sense of Jim Hawkins as a witness to exciting events, but does not really engage when Jim himself performs heroic deeds. This is symptomatic of Robbins and Willmott's approach in general: we get the story told with workmanlike respect, but little sense of why it has captivated so many over the last century. The production as a whole is an honourable Christmas alternative to pantomime, but falls far short of the ripping yarn it should be.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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