"It all began nineteen years ago when my mother and I kept the Admiral Benbow Inn. I was fourteen at the time but I remember it as if it was yesterday."
A thrilling version of the greatest pirate story of them all, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Inspired by the storytelling spirit of the original tale, the cast of two in this critically acclaimed adaptation are shipwrecked musicians, clinging to a raft and to the story to keep body and soul together, in the hope of rescue. Using only the flotsam of their lost ship, they act out all the parts of this adventure on the high seas.
‘It is a certainty that Stevenson would have loved this version.’ The Herald
Treasure Island was first produced in 2001 and has been in Wee Stories’ repertoire ever since. It was most recently seen in 2010 on a UK tour.
|Written, directed and performed by||Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone|
|Lighting Designer||Lizzie Powell|
|Video Designer||Tim Reid|
Reviewed by Gareth K Vile
15 April 2010
Wee Stories take a pinch of pantomime humour, a generous helping of story-telling and an exuberant energy to escape the clichés of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale of piracy and heroism. With only two cast members, the retelling is a series of double acts, as Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone swap from noble Englishmen to vicious brigands with enthusiasm. By framing the play as the performance of two men trapped on a raft, they harness the directness of story-telling without sacrificing theatrical atmosphere.
Opting for a straight retelling, they capture the heroism of Jim Hawkins and the moral ambiguity of Long John Silver, while sketching amusing portraits of the other characters. Musical interludes, audience participation and tensions erupting between two musicians stuck on the seas vary the pace, and passages of narration move the story through a series of imaginatively staged episodes.
The balance between characterisation and narrative is perfect - Hawkins’ innocent musings on honour contrast against Silver’s vibrant scheming and the plots unfold elegantly.
The audience are delighted by the frequent opportunities to sing along or act villainously whenever they are invited to be the pirates and the variations on the notorious sea shanty quickly switch the mood from fun to tension and back again. Cannon and Johnstone clearly enjoy playing up the drama and establish a strong connection to the audience, allowing this well-known story to reveal its nuances and surprises.
Reviewed by Mark Fisher
22 April 2010
IAIN JOHNSTONE is adrift on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Talking directly to the audience, he sets the scene. "No ships, no land, no aeroplanes," he says. This being the day UK airports have finally reopened after the Icelandic volcano, it is an adlib that gets a laugh of recognition. And it is far from being the only laugh in this two-man adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's high-seas page-turner. That might come as a surprise to those who love the novel for its sense of adventure, pace and danger, rather than for its knockabout laughs, but the ever reliable Wee Stories theatre company is brilliant at injecting the best kind of fun and enthusiasm into the most serious of tales.
As it has done with Arthurian legend, Shakespearean tragedy and Greek myth, the company introduces young audiences to a powerful, dramatic story in a way that is both deeply respectful of the original and unafraid to have a giggle.
Thus, it presents Stevenson's 1883 story in terms of two musicians who are lost at sea with only bananas and champagne to keep them going. The company gives us not only a retelling of the tale of teenager Jim Hawkins and his voyage with an unsavoury crew in search of buried treasure, but also a framing narrative about two men who are becoming increasingly fed up of each other's company.
Joined by Andy Cannon, Johnstone passes the time by acting out Treasure Island, a book both men adore. They score laughs in their bickering relationship and their arguments about how to stage the story, but never in a way that diminishes their passion for the piratical adventure itself.
The approach also comes with a built-in theatricality. Stranded on their raft, Johnstone and Cannon can tell the story only with the material immediately to hand. They use bananas for guns, empty bottles for additional characters and a double bass for a galleon. They make scratch costumes with whatever is to hand and make quick changes as they run though Stevenson's colourful cast of seamen and landlubbers.
The result is a highly entertaining show that trusts the power of the imagination and captures the excitement of Stevenson's swashbuckling story, doing so in an unpretentious and lively way.
A low grumbling song can be heard from the bowels of the Netherbow Theatre: “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” No it hasn’t been turned into a grimy seaman’s pub, this is the sound of 70 children and their parents having a thoroughly good time with Wee Stories’ play about Treasure Island.
A pair of shipwrecked musicians adrift on a raft find Stevenson’s novel and begin to act it out. This gives them plenty of opportunity to slip out of the book’s pirate characters to bark out “next chapter!” and explain tricky issues such as the Inland Revenue to the audience.
It also allows them to gallop through the story to concentrate on the exciting bits, which they make very exciting indeed. A stolen pirate treasure map prompts an expedition to a deserted island, where goodies and baddies battle it out for the loot. Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone play all the roles and characters with panache, commandeering mops, shoes and empty champagne bottles for the crowd scenes. The audience is soon providing pirate sound effects as we set sail on the Hispaniola, swiftly constructed out of a double bass a shirt and a pair of braces.
Although playing more than 20 characters, Johnstone and Cannon steer beautifully through the complex plot managing to make it hilarious at the same time. Beetle-browed Johnstone plays most of the fierce pirates, while open-faced Cannon plays our hero, Jim Hawkins the cabin boy.
It’s quite bloodthirsty with some satisfying deaths. Long John Silver pretends to be a ship’s cook but his handy cooking tips soon give him away. “Stab him in the thigh, stab in the chest – until the juices run clear.”
The set is a sun bleached raft designed by Shona Reppe (a puppeteer – and it shows). Everything has a dual purpose: bananas become pistols, violin bows are cutlasses and the parrot is an old umbrella. Johnstone provides the music, even managing to play the double bass when he’s using it as Long John Silver’s crutch. Yet another production to confirm that the Wee Stories company creates Scotland’s finest children’s theatre.
A cruise liner has sunk somewhere in the tropics and the only survivors are two members of the ship's orchestra, the triangle player and the bassist. Together they have cobbled together a raft from the flotsam, furnished it with whatever floated near them - packing cases, parasols, odd items of clothing, driftwood - and, surviving on champagne and bananas, they wait for rescue. While they wait, they pass the time by retelling their favourite story, Treasure Island, improvising all the props and costume from the salvage that surrounds them.
This is a classic Wee Stories Theatre for Children scenario, play-making like children for children but with all the wit, style and invention that Andy Cannon, the artistic director of Wee Stories Theatre, and the formidable Iain Johnstone can bring to a novel they clearly respect as much as they enjoy. The pair of them play all the characters, sometimes two at a time, and manipulate their flotsam with elastic ease. You would expect to pretend empty champagne bottles hold rum and for them to stand in for telescopes, but also a folded parasol held behind your back with the handle over your shoulder will screech "Pieces of eight" in your ear with very little encouragement.
Theatre like this makes nonsense of age grouping; the watching children are entranced and the adults hardly have time to indulge their nostalgia for the ingenuity of the storytelling. At the end, when Long John Silver has escaped, the pirates are all dead, the Hispaniola is safely home and evening falls around the raft, all the excitement, danger and laughter is laid to rest as Andy Cannon plucks his diminutive guitar and Iain Johnstone thumbs his double bass to sing "Red Sails in the Sunset", after which the audience could only roar its approval.
Iain Johnstone and Andy Cannon’s Wee Stories theatre company has been right at the front of the on-going resurgence of children’s theatre in Scotland. At last year’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland their Arthur: The Story of A King picked up the prize for best children’s show, and this imaginative staging of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is another corker.
The play opens with a huge skull and crossbones projected on to the theatre curtain and a loud rendition of Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum, but Johnstone and Cannon begin the piece playing themselves. They have been floating on a raft in the open sea for three weeks and are beginning to hate each other’s guts. With their friendship hanging by a thread, Johnstone takes refuge in his ukulele, Cannon in his copy of the Stevenson tale. Dodging the excremental bombs from a massive albatross, they begin to retell the Treasure Island story.
This is no-holds-barred storytelling, established with real comedy and energy. Consequently, the two actors are able to take their young audience with them as they play the parts of the intrepid youngster Jim Hawkins, the legendary one-legged pirate Long John Silver and the rest of the boldly-drawn characters which inhabit Stevenson’s book.
One is ceaselessly impressed by the sheer theatricality of the piece. Aiming their show at children aged eight and over (the “complicated parts” and “bloodthirsty pirate scenes” being, perhaps, a bit much for younger kids), the two performers quickly get their audience on-side with some brilliantly pitched comic vulgarity. However, they’ve been in this game long enough to know that bum-related material only gets you so far, and they soon turn to hilarious eccentricity. The use of a light shade as the hat of the pompous squire is just one of an array of tremendous uses of props which have the young theatregoers in stitches.
An impressive, remarkably versatile set, fine use of music (complete with audience singalongs) and a very unlikely puppet combine with physical dexterity and the liveliest storytelling to make this a real children’s theatre highlight.