The Chichester Festival Theatre continues its phenomenal run of West End transfers with this comedy by Tim Firth that takes a funny and sometimes uncomfortable look at the way we behave when we’re taken out of our natural environment and faced with a crisis.
Adrian Edmondson, Miles Jupp, Neil Morrissey and Robert Webb play a group of middle-aged Northern businessmen sent on one of those awful team-building exercises that some numpty of an executive thinks will help improve productivity. Thrust into the wilds of the Lake District, they find themselves stranded on an island in Derwentwater after hapless elected captain Neville (Morrissey), who is prone to over-thinking things thanks to a love of cryptic crosswords, guides their boat onto some rocks causing it to sink and the motley crew to swim for their lives.
Rather than the spirit of pulling together that the original exercise was designed to foster, the men’s predicament soon has them at each others throats, mainly due to the attitude of the cynical and bombastic Gordon played by Edmondson, who incidentally gets nearly all the best lines. The fussy Angus (Jupp), the birdwatching Christian Roy with a backstory of some sort of unmentionable breakdown (Webb) soon begin to wilt under his endless rants.
Firth’s clever script contains some great gags and delightful set pieces — arguments over the division of the last sausage, Angus’ seemingly bottomless rucksack containing everything for every eventuality and a great joke involving a distress flare — while he and director Angus Jackson are well served by super performances from these stalwarts of British comedy. But somehow it doesn’t quite come together as a whole. For a start it feels a tad too long; trimming around twenty minutes wouldn’t have done any harm and would have tightened things up considerably. Some of the shorter scenes fracture the narrative and often feel like divvying up the stage time and making sure each of the cast has their moment in the spotlight. The play quite noticeably works best and the energy levels are significantly higher when all four are on stage together and working as an ensemble.
It’s all played out against Robert Innes Hopkins design, which is a wonder to behold. The stage has been miraculously transformed into a forested wilderness complete with actual water — be warned, if you’re sitting at the front you could well get splashed.
Neville’s Island is one of those plays that’s difficult to review. I certainly wasn’t disappointed; it serves up plenty of laughs and is terrific entertainment, but a few stutters midway prevent it from being an absolute classic.
Reviewed by Tony Peters
Neville’s Island is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3 January 2015.