Theatre: A treasure well and truly buried at sea

Treasure Island Lyric Hammersmith, London

Last year, Neil Bartlett stripped away the Christmas card sentimentality from successive versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol and came up with a mysteriously beautiful, magical show. It made enormous imaginative demands of a young audience and they immediately surrendered to its grip. Traditionally, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island has suffered a similar fate, thanks to the encrustations of the poorer pantomime traditions which have turned a dark tale into a larky romp with more reliance on hooped earrings than hair raising adventure. Who better then to save it descending into another round of pirates, parrots and "pieces of eight"?

With his use of nothing but Stevenson's original words and endless doubling by a company of actors, Bartlett's production feels like an attempt to be an early Shared Experience show, albeit with more reliance on the possibilities of a working set. Design, in fact, is the evening's strongest element. Angela Davies' richly suggestive ship grows out of the opening scene with its canvas and rigging hanging above a vast, curved floor full of trap doors. Lighting designer Zerlina Hughes builds on the possibilities, painting the space with gloom and splashing shadows up against the walls in often intense colours. Actors lurk, loiter and loom out of the darkness vividly conjuring up a tense mood of danger.

Initially, certainly, there's plenty of atmosphere. Within 10 minutes, however, you start missing nearly everything else. Fidelity to Stevenson is all well and good, but something major has been lost in the translation. It's like the first recordings of early music played on original instruments, where authenticity appeared to be prized over musicality. True, Stevenson forgot to write a good old knees-up with a bunch of jaunty old sea dogs down the Admiral Benbow pub to pep things up, but the decision to use real - but frankly gloomy - 18th and 19th century worksongs is wildly counter-productive. Extracting numbers from, say, The Muppet Treasure Island would be going it a bit, but something more spirited would have warmed us up no end.

Alas, we needed warming up. It's bewilderingly austere. Yes, the text is full of dark undertones waiting to be rediscovered, but for children? And at Christmas? Wit and heart seem almost entirely absent. The audience, let alone the hero Jim Hawkins, nearly keeled over with pleasure when funny old Ben Gunn finally arrived (Sarah Brignall, happy lunacy in raffia). Andrew Fielding is a fine Captain Smollett and a terrific Blind Pew. But even he and William Rycroft as Jim are isolated by the dead hand of a bizarrely disengaged narrative. The leaden pace and energy spreads through the company like scurvy. Where's the fun on this adventure?

Saddest of all, is the spectacle of the usually excellent Tom Georgeson who growls inaudibly and sneers his way through the evening as Long John Silver, barely bothering to acknowledge the audience. It's lazy, and he looked like he didn't want to be there. I'm genuinely sorry to say that after the first act, I didn't either.

Lyric Hammersmith, box office

0181-741 2311.

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