Neville's Island, Duke of York's - theatre review: Often very funny but occasionally glib

The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television

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Do outdoor team-building weekends ever work?  Do they produce tightly bonded managers who have felt on their racing pulses the power of communication, delegation and clear visionary goals?  Or are they remarkably effective ways of bringing out one's inner fuming-misanthrope to whom seceding from the entire species now seems to a jolly appealing “objective”.

To judge from plays and films, such exercises veer towards the latter description – as is confirmed by Angus Jackson's entertaining revival (transferred to the West, with recasting, from a hit run at Chichester) of this dark comedy by Tim Firth. 

The play began life in 1992 in Scarborough at Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. It’s a compliment to the piece to say that if Ayckbourn had ever tried to rewrite Lord of the Flies for a team of four Northern middle-management executives who get stranded on a fog-bound island in the Lake District while on a team-building course, then he would have come up with a work rather like this.

The play is often very funny but there is something a bit ersatz and glib about the expertise with which it produces gales of laughter while efficiently moving towards its final vision of tragi-farcical futility. It's a vision that, while it's justified by the plot, feels unearned (to my mind) by the spirit of the writing.

 

The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television. It's a nice paradox, in the circumstances, that their own fine team-work brings a dyspeptic dynamism to the unravelling of the quartet. 

The front row of the stalls is issues with plastic macs in case of splashes from Robert Innes Hopkins's excellent water-logged set of the island. Their boat sunk, the exhausted men fetch up here.  Anxious to seem clever, their mild-natured captain (Neil Morrissey) has interpreted straightforward instructions as if they were intended as critic crossword clues.  Result: they are 180 degrees off-course.

It's a situation that Adrian Edmondson's Gordon – an embittered loud-mouth who keeps up an unrelenting sarcastic commentary and is gradually revealed to be an Iago-like nihilist – is bound to love to despise.  Completing the foursome, there's Miles Jupp's prissy, insecure Angus who has come prepared for anything (his haversack is a ludicrous “Tutankhamun's tomb” of survival gear from a self-igniting stove to alarming scimitar). 

Anything, that it, but the suspicion that his supposedly stay-at-home wife, who does not answer an urgent call, has ventured farther afield than the Sainsbury's bread counter in his absence.  And there's Robert Webb, funny and painful as Roy, a spacey-pious born-again “Christian in a cagoule”, beset by grief and mental illness, who starts to put a worrying construction on the presence of a very rare falcon.

There are good verbal and situational gags – the infuriating uselessness of a flare, say, on Keswick District Council's bonfire night.

But the darker side of the play feels forced (would the firm's HR department really have allowed Roy anywhere near the exercise?) and, in the lack of any real after-shock, oddly dutiful. 

To 3 Jan 2005; 0845 505 8500

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