A ship has dropped anchor in Bristol. There's nothing unusual in that, perhaps. But this one is on dry land, parked outside the Old Vic Theatre and overrun by 18th-century pirates.
The theatre space of the Old Vic is closed for redevelopment. But director Sally Cookson, not one to be deterred by the lack of a theatre, decided to construct a stage on the Old Vic's doorstep for her production of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island.
Phil Eddolls's nautically inspired set is a work of art: there is rigging to climb up and nooks to hide in. The simplest of props transforms the set into a ship, a tavern, or a swamp.
The fulcrum of Stevenson's yarn is Long John Silver, the buccaneer who becomes a father-figure to the story's protagonist, Jim Hawkins. So it is here: Tristan Sturrock's Silver dominates and he clearly relishes the part. He chews on each line like so many quids of tobacco and ad-libbed dialogue rolls off his tongue. After one show-stealing scene in which he defeated five pirates, he turned to the applauding audience and said: "That's right, applaud my casual murders."
Hawkins, played by Jonny Weldon, is the picture of youthful enthusiasm and his excitement is contagious. When he comes face to face with the mutineer, Israel Hands – a malevolent Zara Ramm – the ensuing fight scene is one of the most dramatic of the evening. Elsewhere, Saikat Ahamed is brilliantly barmy as the marooned pirate Ben Gunn and Howard Coggins gets many of the evening's laughs as the pompous Squire Trelawney.
Throughout the production Benji Bower provides a jaunty music accompaniment on an array of instruments including an accordion and a xylophone. Sea shanties punctuate the production and the pirates at some points more resemble a jazz band than buccaneers.
Cookson has created a Treasure Island that grabs you by the doubloons and carries you along on an unashamedly swashbuckling adventure. The only element missing from her production is a frisson of real evil. In Stevenson's book, Long John Silver is charming, intelligent and quick-witted, yes: but he is also a model of amorality. This Silver was just too nice.
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