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BWW Review: TREASURE ISLAND, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, 4 August 2016

Pirates, eh? Has there ever been a criminal fraternity so admired, even loved, by the masses? Much of that romantic mythologising is down to one source: Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, a novel packed with adventure, derring-do and enough baroque characterisation to launch a thousand translation apps. Like the lyrics of "Yellow Submarine", lots of people appear to have been born knowing of Long John Silver and his parrot, of Jim Hawkins and the Hispaniola and of the map on which, natch, X marks the spot.

So it was brave indeed of Iris Theatre to deliver an adaptation of so iconic a tale as the second production of its summer season in this unique venue in Covent Garden. Well, it was brave or foolish and, in the end, it was a bit of both.

We start with the terrifying Blind Pew, the much-coveted map and Jim Hawkins joining the adventure setting off for the mysterious island on the other side of the world. Already, we're into the main problem with the production: its tone. On the one hand, there are murders and frightening characters in amongst the audience (this is immersive theatre, after all); on the other, there's a light-hearted feel to some of the villains, toppling into pantomime as the "lucky ones" from the audience get to join in the "Ooh Arr, Jim me Lad"-ing and the ad libs. Of course, there's nothing wrong with changing tone in a production (and, at over two hours, mostly outdoors, it's needed), but perhaps the scary bits are too scary and the panto bits too panto.

Happily, there's much to enjoy in the wonderful evocation of a galleon sailing down to and, in stormy seas, round Cape Horn, as plots are hatched by Long John Silver and his undercover pirates and the noble Captain Smollett steers ship and crew to their destiny.

On dropping anchor, spectators are split into two groups - pirates and privateers - and some of the thrilling momentum is lost a little, before Ben Gunn arrives and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver extend their ambivalent relationship, just about saving their skins.

As you would expect from as experienced a company as Iris Theatre, they use the space with great skill, keeping the promenade going as we move with the actors. They work well with the kids particularly, with Dafydd Gwyn Howells and Dominic Garfield charged up with greed and villainy as Long John Silver and Black Dog and Nick Howard-Brown tragically heroic as Ben Gunn, turning young eyes into saucers of wonder!

It's a great story and an exhilarating staging, but I'm not quite sure that Treasure Island (at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden until 31 August) has mapped out its route as clearly as it might.

Photo: Hannah Barton

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