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National Theatre’s Streaming of Treasure Island Uncovers Pure Gold

National Theatre’s Streaming of Treasure Island Uncovers Pure Gold
Aidan Kelly and Daniel Coonan. Photo by Johan Persson

With a turn of the wheel, director Polly Findlay’s miraculous production of Treasure Island that played at the National Theatre in 2014, streaming on their YouTube channel, sets sail on a well-constructed ship with a strong wind behind it. The piece is a thrill and a joy to behold with each transition steeped in theatrical magic and childhood wonderment. Swimming forward into the waves by Robert Louis Stevenson’s young central character, Jim Hawkins, the tale unfolds with clever unique charm, revolving out the unique creations with charm. Jim is wisely transformed by adapting playwright Bryony Lavery into an astonishingly wonderful thrill-seeking, “smart as paint” girl, beautifully embodied by the remarkable and very game Patsy Ferran (Broadway’s 2020 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Stating with upright clarity that “girls need adventures too, Mrs. Hawkins”, Jim lives and works alongside her grandmother (Gillian Hanna) in her Inn after the untimely death of her parents, waiting for something new to blow in. The tide turns as swiftly as that stage does, pulling her out of her dull and uneventful life into something quite exceptional in a flash.

The cast of Treasure Island. Photo by Johan Persson

A sailor by the name of Billy Bones, menacingly played by Aidan Kelly, steps in, bringing conflict and commotion when he sets down his pirate’s trunk for lodging. He speaks to the young child, “Be you boy, or be you girl?” “That be my business.” about a one-legged pirate who might make a terrorizing appearance anytime soon, and he does come, but not when expected. It takes some time to get to the ship and to the timely entrance of the dreaded pirate, Captain Long John Silver, played magnificently by the engaging Arthur Darvill (Donmar’s Sweet Charity), but it’s worth the wait. Darvill gives Silver a seductive compelling edge that works its magic on almost everyone who comes along, including us. We know almost instantly that he is the one we have been warned about, but, like the impressionable Jim, we also want to join in his twinkle and risk it all for his charismatic attention. We dive into the deceptive waters with glee, like a kid reading an adventurous comic book in the safety of our warm bed, and hold our breath to see what comes next.

Aidan Kelly, Alexandra Maher, and Nick Fletcher. Photo by Johan Persson

Watching with amazement as the set transforms magnificently before our very eyes, we are amazed by every turn.  We knew the moment would come, as we gaze most admirably at the huge curved ribs, waiting with anticipation for the living and breathing structure to rise up magnificently from the revolving stage and create magic. Thanks to the impeccably designed ship by Lizzie Clachan (Young Vic/Park Ave Armory’s Yerma), it finally does, blowing us all away with its size and magnitude. It truly is one of the stars of the adaptation, massively unraveling its sails and swinging rope ladders to the stars for us to climb about like pirates and sailors at war. Lit with the warm glow of fire and sun by lighting designer Bruno Poet (Broadway’s Tina: The Tina Turner Musical), the schooner’s deck elevates up, complete with a steering wheel, revealing magnificently detailed cabins and a ship-shape kitchen galley down below for our consumption.

Arthur Darvill and Patsy Ferran (center) with the cast of Treasure Island. Photo by Johan Persson

Once the voyage is finally and fully on its way, the mystery of the starry night sky is unleashed. Lead by the charismatic and seductive Long John Silver, the kindest of nightmares, he pulls in the wide-eyed Hawkins with a semi-parental lesson in life and voyage.  Magically lighting up the Olivier stage’s ceiling, the sparkling constellations and their guidance feed the hungry youngster with fatherly ease. Connecting the two with an understanding nod to adventure, the compelling psychological layer to the treasure-mapped excitement deepens. The bonding of Hawkins to Long John as he nimbly comprehends the young Jim’s paternal need sets the stage for conflict. Clambering up the rope ladders, she starts to understand the deceptive nature of Silver, almost forcing the story of the treasure to take the back seat to the stronger attachment tale that tugs at the heart-strings with a strong compassion.

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Patsy Ferran and Joshua James. Photo by Johan Persson

I so love a storm!” The wooden stage structure, much like Darvill’s Silver, continues to unveil layers upon layers below in the form of dark and dangerous underground caverns and mud tunnels as the characters arrive onto the dynamic Treasure Island. The dimwitted Squire Trelawny, played wisely by Nick Fletcher (2017’s “The Wife”), constantly amazes in his utter stupidity as he continually does exactly what the wise and straight-forward Dr. Livesey, forcibly played by Alexandra Maher (2015’s “London Road“), knowingly states. You have a loose mouth, she tells him, and he must try hard to keep any knowledge of the treasure map and its whereabouts secret. Mutiny is obviously on its way, and the wily crew played strongly by this ship-shape cast of acting pros, stands by waiting for the sign to rise up. The reveals and engagement fire strong with fun and pirate chatter, lead by a parrot who steals the spotlight more often than naught. The battle has begun with a bang and a climb, and we can’t help but be as excited as school children at story-book time.

Treasure Island filmed at the National Theatre in London. Photo by Johan Persson

My story is told” down in the underground caves that reveal a playground and salvation for them all against the bloodthirsty pirates, including the muddy, mentally shipwrecked Ben Gunn, played gloriously by the wonderful Joshua James. He is a whisp of a man, wise like Jim, who has been left on the island to rot and die by the same pirates leading this new treasured adventure. But he finds enough clarity and vision to help bring awareness and inventiveness to the struggling lot. They must find a way to defeat that one-legged nightmare, utilizing a ghostly plan to save them all. He argues with himself as if he is the muddy relative to Gollum, but in the end, he triumphs. The inventive character gives a layer of originality to the story, alongside another, Tim Samuels’s marvelously bland Grey, a sailor so colorless that no one ever remembers he is there, thankfully, as we soon discover, he is one of the things that help turn the tide.

Patsy Ferran and Arthur Darvill in National Theatre’s Treasure Island. Photo by Johan Persson.

The story moves as surely and forcibly as soon as the Hispaniola set sails for the island. The music and songs by Dan Jones and John Tams’ lovely folk music add to the adventure and the charm of the voyage, creaking the deck as the ship bounces through the waves. Lizzie Clachan’s costumes do the trick by adding place and pleasure to the treasure trove adventure we are on. They all help find play and fun within the classic tale with a few well-formed twists, particularly the talking parrot wonderfully voiced by Fletcher. Lavery’s wisely written adaptation lights up Robert Louis Stevenson’s compellingly fun story as the massive amazing curved ribs shape our view as if through a fish-eye lens. The ship has a life and heart of its own, letting us breathe into its lungs and inner cavities with an exciting sense of exploration. It’s a childhood dream, this Treasure Island and going on an adventure like Jim’s, we happily dive into the choppy waters alongside the miraculously talented Patsy Ferran.

Between her performance and the wooden shape-shifting set, the treasure hunting tale is as alive as can be, and on a self-isolated Sunday night, it’s exactly what the Dr. ordered.Patsy Ferran and Arthur Darvill in National Theatre’s Treasure Island. Photo by Johan Persson.National Theatre at Home is a new initiative from the National Theatre that provides access to content online to serve audiences in their homes. Audiences around the world can stream NT Live productions for free via YouTube. The first week was One Man, Two Guvnorsand last week was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This week, starting on Thursday, April 16, they’re showing the production of Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for one week only. Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including a short interval. If you can, please donate to the National Theatre, they, and all theatre companies worldwide need our help.

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My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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