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Review – Sheila’s Island – Chester Little Theatre

CHESTER Little Theatre and director Margaret Bennett have struck something of a coup here in obtaining the rights to perform Sheila’s Island in an amateur production barely a year since its professional premiere. Not only that, but they have successfully outdone the professionals in creating a production that does much better justice to the material.

Tim Firth adapted his 30 year old toxic masculinity hit Neville’s Island to an all female cast for a 2022 touring production. It originated in Guildford and enjoyed a national tour, when theatres were still bouncing back post-pandemic. At the time it felt like a valiant attempt at recycling rather than a genuine effort to say something new, but Bennett and her outstanding cast have brought fresh eyes to the text, creating something that has real satirical bite and feels relevant.

A group of middle managers from the Pennine Water Company are on the dreaded outward bound team-building exercise. We quickly get the feeling that team Leader Sheila, played by Sally Toosey, is rather over-thinking the clues they have been given to determine their route. Despite repeated pleas from the sensible but fragile Fay (Catherine Millar) to read the instructions at face value, Sheila takes the cryptic crossword approach. Consequently the group are lost on this damp, dark, Derwentwater island, with a sunken dinghy, a rapidly dying mobile and one cold sausage saved from breakfast.

Heather Milam’s Julie has hopes that her husband might send help, if he ever gets home from Aldi and picks up her voicemail, but even those hopes soon turn to worries of a more domestic kind. Meanwhile Denise, played by Rebecca Randle, has the biggest quota of gloriously sardonic lines in the dialogue and seems to be stoically resigned to a wet and windy night with her hapless companions.

There’s a satisfyingly illusory set from Keith Long atmospherically brought to life with excellent lighting and sound design from Matthew Perry, Ollie Clark and Chris Evans, and the pacing of the narrative that plays out on it is judged perfectly.

While the original production brought some criticism for having little new to say about the text when adapted for the opposite gender, Bennett’s incisive and no-nonsense reading lets it and the characters speak for themselves, which makes the whole play feel fresher and much more effortless. Pennine Water’s teambuilding might not have paid the dividends they were hoping for, but this excellent cast gel together into a great ensemble who are a joy to watch.

Review by Nigel Smith

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