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Review – Sheila’s Island – Liverpool Playhouse    

IN  the three decades since Tim Firth wrote his first full length play Neville’s Island it has seen quite a few makeovers in successive revivals and adaptations. Now he has given it a full reworking to create Sheila’s Island. The plot is spookily familiar; four middle-management colleagues on a teambuilding exercise find themselves shipwrecked on an island in Derwentwater. Here, however, our hapless band of survivalists are women rather than men.

The gender reversal affords Firth a goldmine of opportunity to explore the situation from some different angles and to freshen up much of the comic material, but the premise remains the same. Having set out on what is effectively a corporately organised treasure hunt, team leader Sheila has almost certainly over-thought the interpretation of the clues. Whilst the more practical Faye suspects that by now they should be warming themselves by the fire in a pub somewhere on shore, Sheila’s astronomical theories have led them to hire a boat, which they have managed to capsize, leaving them stranded on a small island as night approaches.

This is situation comedy that is full of microdrama. The fads and foibles of the mismatched quartet set up plenty of openings for comic scenarios, and the play is a miniature rollercoaster in which successive episodes build to an either visual or verbal punch line, but there’s insufficient acceleration to deliver any real thrills. Rather than being a cohesive narrative, the show takes the form of a collection of sketches. The pacing ebbs and flows, but instead of building energy as it progresses, it seems to ease its foot slowly off the gas so that the play tends to meander as distinct from striding purposefully forward – rather like its protagonists – and those punch lines occasionally fall face-first in the mud.

This is not for want of a great cast, however. It is genuinely hard to believe that, on press night, two out of the cast of four are played by understudies: Tracy Collier is very assured in the role of Sheila, and Emily Jane Kerr, despite being book-in-hand, delivers the text with real feeling. Abigail Thaw’s Denise meanwhile makes no secret of her disdain for Sheila’s leadership skills, whilst Rina Fatania is a frequent scene stealer with her crack-shot delivery, playing the over prepared Julie who isn’t great at sharing her extraordinarily comprehensive stash of survival gear.

On Liz Cooke’s stylised, sculptural set, complete with muddy pools, the story treks gently along and succeeds in landing a good catch of comedic moments even though it never really quite gets into its stride. Even the thick fog that the show’s billing makes reference to is little more than an occasional wisp of mist from the wings.

This Yvonne Arnaud Theatre production of Sheila’s Island is midway through a national tour and is at the Playhouse until 9th April, after which it continues via Crewe, Brighton, Richmond, Salisbury and Bath.

Star rating – 3 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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