More theatrical than knuckle-whiteningly dramatic, this NT Live* production of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic 1883 adventure book is nevertheless an eye-poppingly brilliant display of stagecraft with a show-stealing turn from a remote-controlled animatronic parrot.
That would be Captain Flint, who perches on the shoulder of Long John Silver in the retelling of a tale rich in evocative names: Blind Pugh, Black Dog, Billy Bones.
Lizzie Clachan's design is the real star of the show: the appearance of the schooner Hispaniola, which seemed to build itself before our eyes, drew a sustained ovation and she conjures a tavern, a wharfside, inflatable rocks, underground tunnels and more besides with deceptive ease.
The new adaptation by Bryony Lavery pays tribute to the writer's tomboy childhood by giving a gender-inclusive twist to a story all but one of whose original characters were male: the youngster narrator, Jim Hawkins, is actually Jemima, and fully half the treasure-hunting crew, including Dr Livesey, is female.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The play has a modern, quasi-Freudian perspective on the relationship between Jim and Long John - a lucid interval featurette argues that the story is a metaphor for the voyage of adolescence in which we learn that not all adults are trustworthy. Even so, Silver (Darvill, whom Doctor Who fans will recognise as Rory) seems more dandyish than dread-inducing.
It's part of a conscious interpretation that deals more in sly comedy than the thrilling terror I remember feeling when I first read the book. The poster warning it's not for little kids is apt only because they'll find it more wordy than scary.
Still, it's full of incidental pleasures: the depressive Abraham "Gray by name and grey by nature" and the Portuguese-spouting Israel Hands (a bearded woman) are standouts. And the fast pace and kinetic staging make for one of this franchise's more purely entertaining offerings. Peter Calder
* NT Live is a project of London's National Theatre. Productions are broadcast in real time to cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic. We get them on hard drive a few weeks later.
Cast: Patsy Ferran, Arthur Darvill, Nick Fletcher, Tim Samuels, Helena Lymbery
Director: Polly Findlay
Running time: 150 mins
Rating: M (content may disturb)
Verdict: Brilliantly designed and fast-paced production of a classic.