thu 17/04/2014

Island, National Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Island, National Theatre

A thoughtful children's show that is both entertaining and educational

Grandmother (Anne Kavanagh) watches over her island

Half-term may be nearly over for many, but there is no shortage of children’s theatre on offer in London at the moment. Long-running family favourites including Shrek the Musical and The Lion King have recently been joined by the mighty Matilda the Musical, and fans of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse (still stabled in the West End) will be delighted by the author’s latest stage adaptation – Twist of Gold – playing at the Polka Theatre. If it’s thoughtful, educational entertainment you’re after though, Island might just be the show of choice this February.

Island is award-winning children’s novelist Nicky Singer’s first play, and grounds its fantastical adventures in the very real issues of climate change and colonialism. It’s a weighty agenda to carry, but Singer’s ear for dialogue and way with a story manages to make something more than a sermon from her material.

Stories are vividly and intently told

Teenage Cameron (James Cooney) is blessed – cursed, he would say – with a mother (Jilly Bond) whose scientific research takes her out to the remote island of Herschel in the Canadian Arctic Ocean during his holidays. Tagging reluctantly along with her, Cameron (“a child who leaks noise”) finds himself unplugged from the world of his iPod, and plunged into the snow-and-ice kingdom of the Arctic and its native Inuvialuit population. Encountering the ghostly Inuluk (Rebecca Boey, pictured below with Cooney), a young Inuit girl, Cameron learns the lessons of her people, hears tales of Creation, and begins to understand the fragility of nature and human life.

The Cottesloe is completely reworked for the show, with low-set tiers of seating clustering close around the craggy set as though round a camp fire. Young audience members (the show is aimed at ages eight and over) find themselves within touching distance of the cast, lending an immediacy to proceedings that helps sustain the action over its gently paced hour. Stories are vividly and intently told under Adam Penford’s direction, and are greatly enhanced by Simon Kenny’s delicate sound design.

Teasing the issues from her play through myth and story, Singer’s writing works best in the mouth of Inuluk, whose wide-eyed earnestness seems to sit better with the children than Cameron’s cynical asides. Both Boey and Cooney play their parts with commitment, though Boey’s innocence is the more striking, balanced by the inscrutable presence of Anne Kavanagh’s Grandmother. It is Kavanagh who gives the play its memorable opening tableau clad in magnificent sealskins and furs, clasping her staff like a female Prospero as she watches over her island.

While the very youngest children (perhaps 10+ would be a better age-range for the show) might struggle with the big concepts and some big words, older ones will enjoy this compact piece of theatre, whose small size belies the weight of its substance. Geography, sociology, and human anthropology have rarely been so engagingly taught, and Inuluk’s colourful stories of her world will stick with children long after their homework has been forgotten.

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