An annoyingly loud, often tedious sitcom that becomes serious in act two, Neville’s Island finds its direction long after it’s buried its audience in trivia. This Hat Trick Theatre production boasts just one truly outstanding element — Paul McColgan’s island set — but Tim Firth’s script is so grating, it’s hard to enjoy much of anything else about this effort.
Anyway, any production that can reduce the multitalented Jack Holloway to a one-note, tiresome bully has got some serious flaws, and if the other three performers are able to show us more variety, they of course can’t rise above the lines they’re condemned to speak. The ironic thing is, when Firth finally gets around to serious business, he turns out to be an intelligent and penetrating writer. If only we didn’t have to wait so long for this experience. If only we didn’t have to endure the mediocrity of act one.
The play begins with four middle managers — Neville, Gordon, Angus, and Roy — crawling to safety on what turns out to be an island in England’s Lake District. It seems that that all four are on a “team-building” exercise sponsored by their company, and their boat has gone down after crashing into some rocks. As they try to acclimate themselves to their new refuge, we learn a little about each one. Neville is the team captain, and a well-balanced, sensible type; Gordon is a bad-tempered, verbally abusive jerk; Angus is a simple, easily flustered naïf; and Roy is a pious Christian with a prayer for every occasion. Once they’ve determined that all have successfully reached land, the supposedly funny business begins: they embarrassedly change into dry clothes, argue over the meaning of goose bumps, try to chow down on one solitary sausage, and attempt to signal for help. Everything they do and say is either predictable or meaningless. If this were a television show, we’d watch for a few minutes and change the channel.
But then act two begins and finally there’s something to think about. The key to this act is the figure of Roy, whose religious devotion has been the object of Gordon’s attacks from the outset. Now we learn that Roy earlier faced a crisis in his life that led to a nervous breakdown, and that his newly acquired Christianity is what helped him return to “normal.”
But his religiousness, like his sanity, is not unassailable; Gordon’s attacks may go too far, and Roy may see no escape but suicide. As this drama is played out, all the irrelevancies of act one almost fade from memory, and we find ourselves examining not only Roy’s piety, but the dysfunction that drives Gordon to try to destroy other people’s happiness. There are some fine speeches in this act, and even a surprise ending. Neville’s Island isn’t entirely regrettable after all.
But oh how I regret what director Gi Young Sung has done with Jack Holloway as Gordon. Only weeks after giving us a fascinating and complex Hamlet, Holloway now is downgraded to a constantly ranting, barking boor. All right, a lot of the blame belongs to author Firth, but even so there’s no reason in the world why Gordon’s malevolence can’t have some modulation, why he has to shout all his lines as if cold, quiet meanness weren’t also possible. Stephen Fisher as Neville is much more human and thinkable: he exudes decency and best-foot-forward, and we can easily imagine him in a business suit reporting last quarter’s sales figures. As Angus, Jonathan Cho is likable if not very dimensional; I accepted his innocence in act one, but didn’t believe his despair in act two. Fortunately, Paul McColgan as Roy does a winning job convincing us of both the sweetness of his faith, and the dark abyss beneath it: this is a barely-patched-together human being who needs careful treatment, or else.
And then there’s that fine thing, McColgan’s set. This is one of the most convincing outdoor environments I’ve ever seen in the Shimberg Playhouse. It’s a peninsula of sorts, offering rocks and shrubs and trees and pools of water, and it’s so attractive and believable, you’ll find yourself wishing a better play were thereon. Sung’s costumes are passable, and Anthony Vito’s lighting is first-rate. Lisa McColgan’s props include a working portable stove and a genuine sausage: you can smell the latter as it cooks on the former.
Still, there’s no getting over it: the way to act two is, unhappily, through act one, and to get off Neville’s Island, you first have to get on. Playwright Firth may think he’s hedging his bets, but the result is oddly-shaped and not very satisfying. I’m sorry I took the excursion.