It was a very smart move of Tim Firth to adapt his 1998 TV comedy, Neville’s Island, for the stage in 2013. It has rarely – if ever – been out of production since. It looks like being another smart move for him to realise (or be persuaded) that his four middle-management male characters could be reincarnated as four middle-management females. The result, Sheila’s Island, pulls in a decent crowd to the Lowry’s Quays Theatre, and they do not leave disappointed.
It must be a lovely feeling for actors in a comedy to get welcoming laughs for their opening (moderately amusing) antics. The crowd here is laughing out loud as, one by one, Sheila (the nominal leader), Denise (the acid-tongued malcontent), Julie (the massively over-prepared), and Faye (the blessedly religious) scramble ashore on a tiny island in Derwent Water; soggy but otherwise unharmed, having sunk the boat they unwittingly stole.
Despite this setback, Sheila is adamant that her team is now strides ahead of the competition – until Faye delicately points out that what Sheila took as cunningly disguised hints that only she (a cryptic crossword buff) could decipher, were actually fairly straightforward directions. Rather than shivering and drying out here, they should be with the other teams, in a warm pub, a couple of miles in the opposite direction.
Never fear; Julie has a super-duper mobile. She calls her husband, Angus, who “never goes out”. Unusually, Angus is out. Undeterred, Julie uses virtually all her battery power leaving a lengthy message for him, regarding their predicament and what to do about it. No doubt Angus has nipped to do the shopping at Aldi. Help will soon be on its way… or not.
Despite Sheila’s attempts to lift morale by organising a game of French cricket, and Faye’s determined Christian optimism and joyful appreciation of the local birdlife, as the four begin to accept that rescue might not be all that imminent, tempers flare more readily than Sheila’s camp fire. Even the emergency flare they dig from Julie’s enormous backpack doesn’t offer genuine hope of salvation – it’s November 5th and there’s a deluxe firework display in nearby Keswick.
Act One closes with a screaming Julie rushing back to camp, her hands covered in blood. Could our four hapless women be trapped on a tiny island with a crazed killer? Well…
It’s a genuine ensemble piece and no one lets the side down. Abigail Thaw relishes Denise’s withering way with words: when Julie apologises for “murdering” a joke, Denise tells her: “Murder would have been more humane. You shot it in the kneecaps.”
Rina Fatania has a ball as Julie, clowning it to the max (there are some brilliant comic revelations from her apparently bottomless backpack). Sara Crowe’s Faye is sweet and warm enough to overcome the somewhat heavy-handed mockery of her Christianity. Judy Flynn oozes desperate common sense and decency in a largely straight-woman role.
The more dramatic aspects of Act Two are underwritten and less successful. This is a shame as the audience is open to something more profound – gasping audibly when it looks like Faye might be on the point of self-harm. The story also cries out for a moment of redemption after the increasingly bullying Denise is taken to task by Sheila. (Modern comedy audiences seem to prefer redemption to comeuppance).
The set up is a gift to the writer, in that it permits a deus ex machina finale at any point he feels he’s written enough. Come on: this is an island in Derwent Water, not some remote spit in the deep Pacific – it’s no spoiler to say help eventually arrives.
The resourceful Firth may now seize on the opportunity to create a franchise. What next? Devil’s Island – Papillon and the Laughing Lepers? Crocks and Frocks – Sheila’s Island (Down Under)?
Why not? As long as it keeps being funny, people will buy tickets. Rightly so.