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BWW Review: TREASURE ISLAND, Birmingham Rep, 29 November 2016

Originally commissioned by the National Theatre two years ago, Bryony Lavery's adaptation of Treasure Island swings into the Birmingham Rep for a lengthy Christmas run. This classic tale of adventure, buried treasure and dastardly pirates follows Jim Hawkins on a voyage to find the lost treasure of Captain Flint, with her friends Doctor Livesey and Squire Trelawney. When the unwitting squire hires a crew of undercover pirates, led by Long John Silver, the treasure hunt becomes a fight for survival.

Lavery has updated Robert Louis Stevenson's 19th century tale of buccaneers and buried gold for a 21st century audience. Written over 200 years ago, it is hardly surprising that the original story includes only two female characters. In 2016, it is unacceptable to alienate half of your audience from the outset, so Lavery introduces a host of strong, sassy female characters.

Jim Hawkins is a feisty, independent teenage girl, on a quest to show that girls can have adventures too, aiming to prove herself a heroine in the process. Doctor Livesey is an intelligent, shrewd lady, despairing of the brash confidence of Squire Trelawney.

Sarah Middleton is endearing as Jim Hawkins, communicating with the audience to tell her story with comic frankness and a gently self-deprecating manner. She leads the cast in the musical numbers - a delightful series of complex sea shanties from composer Dyfan Jones - with a pure, ethereal voice.

Michael Hodgson is an enigmatic, complex Long John Silver. Both Jim and the audience are seduced by Long John, as he introduces us to the magic of the stars and teaches Jim to navigate using the constellations. Amid a web of rope and atmospheric, flickering lanterns, Hodgson lures us all in to a false sense of security. However, under the island sun, Long John Silver reveals his true colours. With a quiet, menacing voice, unpredictable bursts of rage and disconcertingly charming smile, Hodgson's Long John Silver is a dangerous enemy with bags of roguish charm.

The energetic ensemble work incredibly hard, bringing to life a ragtag assortment of pirates and peasants. Impressively versatile, the actors sing, dance, play instruments and operate puppets. Dave Fishley is particularly hilarious as Grey, a sailor so softly spoken he slips unnoticed through a raging fight and escapes the pirates' handcuffs.

Mark Bailey's stage design creates the excitement and allure of the voyage and the island itself. The ship Hispaniola unfolds from the stage, sails soaring upward with swaying ladders and a magnificent ship's wheel. A far cry from a paradise island, this is a literal mine of death and danger, with small trapdoors emitting squelching gurgles and fetid green light, ready to entrap greedy pirates.

Despite the exotic setting, Treasure Island is packed with Christmas magic a-plenty. The audience marvel at the impossible, from a squawking chicken that lives in a handbag (puppets brilliantly operated by Suzanne Nixon) to the doctor's bag into which Jim magically disappears, Mary Poppins-style, and a shimmering golden shower which deluges the stage in a final, breath-taking scene.

At times, this production is a little rough around the edges; the fight scenes and dance numbers could be tightened increase their impact and highlight extra moments of comedy. Also, due to the poor acoustics of the Birmingham Rep and strong pirate accents, sections of dialogue are often lost.

Treasure Island is a rollercoaster adventure that will inspire audiences of all ages with its gorgeous sea shanties, irreverent comedy, feisty female characters and intriguing set design.

Treasure Island is at Birmingham Rep until 7 January.

Photo credit: Pete Le May

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From This Author Emma Cann