Published in the Guardian
Cumbernauld Theatre on tour
ROBERT Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel is a lot for a dramatist to contain on stage. It kicks off at the creepy House of Shaws, where the recently orphaned David Balfour finds himself at the mercy of an acquisitive uncle, before taking us to the port of Queensferry and on to the Covenant, a slave ship on which the young man finds himself captive.
After several maritime misadventures, the story never sits still. Balfour and his new friend Alan Breck find themselves shipwrecked off Mull then journeying through the hills and glens of post-Culloden Scotland, escaping the anti-Jacobite forces as they go.
With so much movement, the tale can easily drag a stage adaptation down. At its best, however, Ed Robson's production for Cumbernauld theatre dances over this danger by focusing on the narrative, using hand-drawn slides to indicate location and powering ahead without theatrical clutter.
It means all eyes are on the three actors: Scott Hoatson showing Balfour's mettle as well as his wide-eyed innocence; Peter Callaghan capturing Breck's maverick blend of loyalty and lawlessness; and Alan Steele grimacing his way through a cartoon gallery of baddies. They sometimes show more verve than finesse, but their energy keeps the story racing along.
Robson clearly understands the value of storytelling simplicity, so it's a shame he keeps throwing out ideas that muddy the waters. In particular, giving the actors a video camera only makes the production seem clumsy. Their attempt to project a puppet-theatre fight in the first half is executed so poorly that we lose sight of the story altogether. Similarly, having a 21st-century newsreader to summarise the plot in the second half comes out of nowhere and only draws attention to itself. Less fussiness and a more organically developed style would have placed fewer demands on the energetic actors.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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