More than real history with its inconvenient complexities and hard truths, Treasure Island, a gripping coming of age tale, is the root of our culture’s romanticization of the pirates of old. This play is a highly enjoyable adaptation of that classic story with superb actors and excellent stagecraft suited for the Palace Theatre.
An adult Jim Hawkins (Phil Arnold) tells the tale of how as a boy (Kezia Kirkham) he came into possession of a map to the notorious pirate Captain Flint’s legendary buried treasure. With Dr. Livesey (Mark Speechley) and Squire Trelawney’s (Sam Shoebottom) support, plans are made to find it on the ship, the Hispaniola. Along the way, Jim befriends the charismatic Long John Silver (Sean Brennan) who gathers a crew despite the misgivings of Captain Smollett (Andrew Richardson). On the voyage, Jim discovers Silver’s treacherous plans for him and his friends and now must play a deadly game of wits as they reach the dangerous Treasure Island.
As much as the book has seeped into our culture into cliche, this play gives the story a fiery sincerity that helps bring it to glorious life on stage. To make that possible, the play is performed with as much earthy realism as the limits of the stage will allow, such as how the play’s violent opening leads naturally to Billy Bones’ entrance into Jim’s life. Played magnificently by Joel Dell, Bones immediately establishes the foul nature of the resulting pirate business that offers to change Jim’s life for both good and ill. To that end, Monica Maika as Blind Pew follows that through with a terrifying entrance that brings the peril that Bones heralds so ominously.
As the main plot begins, the players use that foundation to build a gripping retelling of the classic story. For that to happen, you must have the proper actor for Long John Silver and Brennan is more than up to the task, providing a delicate mix of charm laced with menacing self-interest as he schemes to get the treasure with a minimum of fuss and blood. Against that presence, Speechley and Richardson are warmly welcome on the stage as stalwart heroes whom Jim can rightly trust in this adventure. As for Shoebottom, he excels again as the comical Squire who transcends stereotypes as a foolish fop who proves himself a trusty mate you would want in times of peril. Finally, Brady Morrison caps it off as Ben Gunn, a maddened survivor who plays his own interests with manic energy and a good heart.
However, all this would be useless if not for Kirkham and Arnold’s fine performances as the young and older Jim Hawkins. Kirkham, despite being looking a little too scrubbed for the character, plays a convincingly plucky kid hero who can match wits with Silver and survive with his naivety balanced with indomitable nerve. That in turn makes the coming of age plot work beautifully in a way that transcends all cliche, as Jim faces both danger and hard choices with deliciously vile villains like Israel Hands (Nic Bishop). Likewise, Arnold is perfect as the older Jim; as he tells the tale his mind wanders to relive it, adding subtly surreal humour as the secondary characters silently react to this intruder.
To make this sweeping swashbuckling tale work, the play has some of the best stagecraft I have ever seen in the Palace. With a flexible stage that can smoothly shift from tavern to ship to jungle with some easily movable props, your imagination will fill in the blanks with soothing ease. I really like the latter setting that feels so perfectly like a steaming jungle where terrible violence and rich rewards share an equal place for all concerned. The back projection function is a particular triumph as it provides a background to the settings that feels almost seamless. The standout is the fate of Blind Pew as the back screen provides a shocking illustration that will jump you out of your seat. The costuming is no less perfect, with an ornate attention to detail that fits the players perfectly, whether it is Shoebottom in his fancy duds and enormous wig, or Brennan in his weather-beaten but still neat seafaring dress as Silver.
The aural portion is equally effective with an evocative score by Guy-Roger Duvert which is supported with entertaining singing that goes far beyond the “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” cliches. That is complemented with the right smoky sound effects that provide the ambiance needed for a story like this. The final result is a production that I have difficulty seeing even a Broadway version topping.
As much as Treasure Island is hardly challenging story material for any Canadian theatre company, the London Community Players have created a superb night’s entertainment that took me by surprise. In my opinion, that makes this show a fine treasure to discover for yourself.