It's going to take more than a few pieces of eight, or doubloons, even, to save Derby Playhouse from Davy Jones's locker. That's certainly how it seemed last month when, with choice theatrical timing, it was announced that the company had gone into liquidation. It seemed as though Treasure Island might sink without trace. It was a rum do, as the sea-dogs of the Hispaniola might have said.
A theatre in the doldrums is nothing new, but one on a knife-edge, threatened by lubbers (clownish dolts, according to the useful programme glossary) and forced to rely on gentlemen of fortune, is the stuff of a great West End show. And, in fact, that is exactly what Derby Playhouse's boisterous production of Stevenson's tale of buccaneers and buried gold deserves – a West End airing.
After the cancellation of the first week of performances, and the joint artistic director Stephen Edwards offering almost £30,000 of his own money to tide the theatre over, hopes of survival seemed doomed. Then a consortium led by a former Playhouse chairman put £160,000 into the theatre. That was all it took for a staff – as numerically skeletal as the cadaver left guarding the pirates' long-lost treasure – to hoist the flag again, waive their pay and set the leaky ship afloat once more. Rights were renegotiated, the cast re-contracted and swords replaced in their sheaths. The black spot of certain death had been, temporarily at least, withdrawn from the 530-seat theatre, the area's only professional producing house. The debate about the viability of the Playhouse rages on, as the sums required to keep it open are being scrutinised and stars such as Alan Rickman, Simon Callow, Timothy West and Prunella Scales rally round.
Extra performances have now been added to the run of Karen Louise Hebden's compelling adaptation of the story of fearsome pirates, dusty maps, schooners, tropical islands and a one-legged seaman with a gaudy, garrulous parrot. That gives London producers as well as audiences from surprisingly far afield more opportunity to catch this splendid production and discover what a hidden treasure the Playhouse is. X marks the spot in the shopping mall which threatens to engulf the Playhouse.
I don't know of a more gripping tale of derring-do on the high seas, with its desperate search for hidden gold on a tropical island. It scared me stiff as a child and I still quake at the sound of Blind Pew's tapping tick. In this faithful stage version – created with the help of the director's Master Mariner father, Captain Hebden – quaint characters are thrillingly depicted while nifty action has young and old on the edge of their seats. The veteran Ben Roberts emerges from playing a menacing old Billy Bones to being stalwart Smollett, indisputably in charge of the ship. Glyn Kerslake cuts an ambiguous figure as the charismatic Long John Silver and Gregory Gudgeon is alternately sinister as Pew and hilarious as the half-crazed, cheese-craving Ben Gunn, delightful in a nifty number parodying Gilbert and Sullivan. A vigorous little band plays while the cast roars its shanties and ballads.
Brian Protheroe's music adds boundless atmosphere to a show in which colours of all hues – from the fusty Admiral Benbow Inn to the exotic Caribbean island – transport the audience to what Stevenson's stepson called a "heaven of enchantment". But what of young Jim Hawkins himself? Making an impressive debut, Daniel Hinchliffe is confidently engaging as the boy whose child-like delight at finding himself in the middle of the best nautical adventure of all time turns to an abrupt coming of age in the light of bloody battle and piratical skulduggery.
The fate of the devious mutineers is left hanging in the air; but doughty Derby Playhouse must be not be left marooned.
Until 2 February (www.derbyplayhouse.co.uk; 01332 363275)Reuse content