Tim Firth

‘There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.’ Neville’s Island.

Neville's IslandIt’s probably somewhat unfair my reviewing this. After all, it won’t be around much longer. If it’s not already gone. Having planned to see it for ages, the family and I ended up taking the unprecedented step of buying the last tickets available on Saturday. Turns out this year may well be quite spontaneous – watch this space. Written by Tim Firth, Neville’s Island recounts the bizarreĀ Lord of the Flies style story of four hapless middle class managers as they attempt to get themselves out of a number of sticky situations. To be honest, I had no idea what was about to happen.

Considering the four man cast – Robert Webb, Ade Edmondson, Miles Jupp and Neil Morrissey – I had a vague feeling that whatever was going to occur was going to be at least marvellous, but as to the true intentions of the piece, I had no idea. Selling itself as a somewhat frivolous comedy did lend itself a little uneasily to the idea that all might not be as good as it seemed, but that all changed – one look at the stage and I knew it was set to be top notch.

Well, not quite a first look at the stage, but more the curiously dressed front row – all in the most delicious array of waterproof ponchos. If that doesn’t give you the willies, I don’t know what will – it made me wonder what, exactly, was going to happen on stage that would lend itself to such an intriguing dress code. Unless, of course, they happened to be on a casual trip out as the anorak appreciation society. One can never know. Anyway, my confusion was soon cleared up.

It started raining. Literally, precipitating. Cue ripple of admiration from the audience. It was simply wonderful. The stage, dressed with a fine selection of deciduous trees (genuine from all I could tell) very rapidly began filling with water. There hadn’t been any mention of that on the programme. Yet, the pebbles strewn across ahead of the trees were soon soaked and no one had set an alarm off. So as the bell sounded, the audience couldn’t have been more curious. Or less ready. Onto the stage comes a sopping Morrissey (Neil, not Smith). Staggering across stage, maps around his neck, Morrissey gave a reason for the front row to be grateful for their ponchos. But not nearly so much as Edmondson, splashing through a trough of water at the front of the stage looking, for all intents and purposes, as though he’d come from a recent Aquaman audition.

Before long, all were on stage, interacting beautifully with their somewhat aqueous surroundings. On a brief aside, I applaud them for their shear tenacity (I would have been complaining and calling trenchfoot within a minute). And so, the story was off. We discover that the four unfortunate businessmen have become lost on a company training exercise. Well, more than lost. They’re on an island, lacking food, any way of communicating with the outside world and, in Ade’s case, no dry shoes. Within four minutes, they’d already argued enough for the whole piece, gone through their own personal crises and undressed. Pretty astounding achievement. And so the story continues, each member losing more hope in the others by the second. We gradually uncover secrets – Gordon has trust issues, Angus cannot cope with the concept of love and Roy has had a nervous breakdown replete with a newfound Christian enlightenment.

For a somewhat unpredictable and clearly jocular farce, Neville’s Island also succeeded on hitting on many of the very real issues behind it – the fractious and unsatisfied Gordon (Edmondson) providing most of the commentary there. Mental illness, religion, survival of the fittest and the human condition all have their moments to be explored at great depth. Almost everything is faced, from the ultimately depressing reality of the working life for the majority of people to suicide. Neville’s Island achieved the almost impossible – it was neither too dry and straightfaced when encountering these issues, nor did it make light so much of them to be considered indecent. It had moments of tragic poetry. We discover, for example, the real reason for Roy’s breakdown and it is truly heartbreaking. Just as in Lord of the Flies, the group discover their natural authority and struggle to cope with one another beyond an hour, especially as hunger and coldness creep up on them… And the prospect of something else inhabiting the island.

But I was not just impressed by the story. Considering the big names of the cast, I had great expectations – especially of Webb and Edmondson, having grown up with Peep Show and Bottom. Interesting childhood… Nevertheless, it could have turned out completely different – they could have made it into a pantomime, a charade, but they stepped up to the post. It was a mature and engrossing performance – there was not a single weak link. Of course, they were somewhat limited by the fact that Firth has written the parts somewhat unfairly. Most of the acting Webb was involved in happened onstage. And the audience knew when to expect a rather hefty rant from Edmondson. Yet, it didn’t matter – all parts were well fulfilled. And I know I wasn’t the only member of the audience enjoying it.

So yeah, not really much else to say, but if you’re looking for an all encompassing production featuring slapstick (timed to perfection, of course), multiple crises (or should that be “holidays”) and good clean entertainment (it’d have to be with all that rain), go for it. Get the last tickets. And good luck!