Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Neville's Island; Spine

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Neville's Island; Spine

Article excerpt

Neville's Island

Duke of York's Theatre, in rep until 3 January


Soho Theatre, in rep until 2 November

Start with a joke. Neville's Island . Get it? Laughing yet? Are your ribs splitting into pieces? It's a cracker, isn't it? Well it's a pun, at least, on Devil's Island.

Tim Firth's play, regarded as a modern classic, premiered 22 years ago in Scarborough: Ayckbourn country, and it shows. Four corporate numbskulls on a team-building exercise get stranded on a remote islet with no hope of rescue. Their Alcatraz is located in the Lake District, which is known to millions as a dead-safe holiday habitat, and this seems to have unsettled Firth so he crams in extra snags to convince us the castaways' predicament is genuine. Their skiff has capsized. Killer pike throng the lake-waters. Food supplies are limited to a sausage. The only available telephone is on its deathbed. The chaps face a stark choice: co-operation or expiry.

Firth builds his characters from an assembly-line of masculine negatives. Ade Edmondson leads the cast as an interfering know-all with a gloaty aside for every problem. Robert Webb plays a bird-watching Jesus-freak. Miles Jupp gives his version of an Ayckbourn staple: the sexually inert fusspot obsessed with gadgetry. Neil Morrissey fills in the gaps as a minor-chord peace-maker. All four actors are on excellent form, charming, lively and committed to a production which is as good as the flimsy material allows.

Robin Innes Hopkins's throbbing, humming, dripping set is a character in its own right. A heaving phalanx of Amazonian greenery menaces the stage. Rheumy boughs soar upwards. Swarms of glossy leaves dangle in mid-air. A blue-grey mist prickles the lighting gaffs. Down below the actors walk ankle-deep through sodden mulch. It's impressive to look at, like one of Blake's crazy abstract backgrounds, but it's dramatically redundant because you don't need half a Kew's worth of squelchy flora to suggest isolation. Beckett managed it with a broken tree-stump.

Aside from the hard-to-credit situation and the irksome characters, the play is marred by age. The absence of female figures places it firmly in the decade of Men Behaving Badly, when women were regarded as exotic excrescences, prattling and nagging at the edges of mankind's key drama: male friendship. The arrival of Friends established gender balance as the norm for comedies so this show feels lop-sided, immature and detached from today's concerns. …

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