Theatre Review: Treasure Island, Bolton Octagon at the University of Bolton Stadium
Arrh Jim lad, this is Treasure Island, but not as we know it. No timbers will be shivered, no one will be sent to Davy Jones’s Locker, but a good time will be had by all.
Writers Kate Ferguson and Susannah Pearse have taken Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure and turned it into a jolly almost-pantomime with some lovely songs but absolutely no jeopardy. Directed by Tim Jackson, the cast of six actors and 12 youngsters deliver it with gusto, and everyone is a fan. Of particular note is the Ben Gunn dream sequence – if you don’t know the story, Gunn has been marooned alone on the island for years and has gone quietly mad dreaming of cheese. His dream, featuring Ebony Feare as an enormous polystyrene cow and Heather Phoenix as a similar mouse, will stay with me for a long time.
Another thing that will linger is the performance of Ami Okumura Jones as Jim (Jemima) Hawkins. She is at the centre of the story, has a couple of outstanding solo numbers, and effectively holds the show together. And this is her first job. Remember that name.
Feare is thoroughly put upon as embattled landlady Mrs Hawkins, does a volte-face into competent Captain Smollett, and sings beautifully – but it is her dream cow that I will remember. Phoenix, a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and accomplished actress of this parish is appearing at Bolton for the first time, and clearly loving it. She gives her Dr Livesey – who needs a hat – with firm resolve, an accordion and a flute. In fact, the whole cast play instruments and accompany each other in songs, in and out of character.
Jack Lord is Long John Silver, with the parrot but without the wooden leg. He is the scheming centre of the plot and does scheming acting rather well. Henry Bauckman gives a drunken Billy Bones who has a hilarious death and is reborn as Ben Gunn, in which he looks remarkably like a Stockport Councillor I know. Ben Simon is Blind Pew, the baddy with the Black Spot, channelling a punk rock Rod Stewart, and the idiot posho Squire Trelawney in very tight trousers. They are all funny, endearing and know exactly what kind of show they are in.
The youngsters, recruited at open audition (some of them members of the youth theatre), have quite a lot to do, from manipulating Long John’s parrot to delivering important lines. They do it well, and are much more than the usual dance school chorus.
The University of Bolton’s stadium Premiere suite, where the Octagon has taken residence for Christmas during their refurb, is a huge room more suited to music events or conferences than theatre, but it works, mostly. Designer James Perkins has filled a wide stage with the ribs of an enormous sunken boat, and it’s been nicely lit by Johanna Town. Sound is usually the problem in these big rooms but designer Andy Graham and engineer Mark Luxton have done a good job getting it right. On press night the balance at the sides was less good than in the middle, and from the singing I’d say the actors badly need better foldback (how the actors hear the music via speakers pointed at the stage), but these are teething problems that will undoubtedly be fixed.
If I have a quibble, it’s that the show is skirting dangerously on the edge of being a youth theatre production with some guest adults. The kids are good but one of the reasons Equity was set up was because theatres would otherwise fill their stages at Christmas with local amateurs, denying jobs to professionals. Acting is one of the few things in the world that people will gladly do for nothing, and jobs are difficult to find. Many theatres take as much as a third of their annual income on their Christmas shows, and people come to this year’s performance because they enjoyed the experience the year before. Budgets are always tight, and although this is a short run for a Christmas show (because the stadium is used for other things), with tickets at proper theatre prices it seems a false economy to risk the quality of everyone’s good time, and next year’s box office, to save a salary or two.
Photos by The Other Richard.
Treasure Island is on until December 28, 2019. For more information, click here.
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