Sheila’s Island

01/03/22

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Sheila’s Island, directed by Joanna Read, is a reworking of Tim Firth’s 1992 play, Neville’s Island, about a group of middle-managers on an outward bound ‘team-building’ trip. Only two notable things have changed: the protagonists’ gender, and the need to explain why no one has a working phone. The former is dealt with more convincingly than the latter: the women are as rounded and credible as their male counterparts. As for the perennial mobile problem, I’m quite happy to buy the idea that ‘water damage’ has rendered Julie’s unworkable; I’m less convinced that the other women would have acquiesced to a request to hand theirs over to the course organisers. It just seems unnecessarily convoluted. ‘No signal’ would suffice…

The island in question is in the Lake District – Derwentwater – only a mile from the mainland. It’s November 5th, and the women are there because Sheila (Judy Flynn), their team leader, has led them astray, after misreading the first clue on a treasure hunt. They’re stranded because their canoe has sunk. Denise (Abigail Thaw) is particularly miffed, because her rucksack is still in the canoe, but Julie (played tonight by understudy, Tracy Collier) has packed enough for ten, so they’ll probably be okay. Except that Fay (Sara Crowe) is with them… and Fay has a lot of personal issues to work through.

Firth is good at humour, and there are jokes a-plenty in the script, delivered with gusto (and great timing) by the performers. The low-stakes situation is played for laughs: this is a long way from Robinson Crusoe or Lord of the Flies; the women can expect to be rescued within a day or so. Nevertheless, they rapidly descend into disharmony, with petty rivalries sparking heated exchanges, and their ridiculous attempts at bushcraft are genuinely funny.

Where the play fails, for me, is in its attempt to deliver something deeper than the shallow waters at the island’s edge. I don’t believe any subject should be off-limits when it comes to jokes, but neither do I think that issues as serious as nervous breakdowns, suicide attempts and being a long-term carer should be appropriated as asides. The subjects are too weighty for this flimsy tale to bear, and they make the tone uneven. It seems a little tin-eared, if I’m honest.

The set (by Liz Cooke) is a thing of loveliness, with simple, stark lines depicting bare trees, and an inlet of water reflecting Paul Anderson’s gorgeously lit winter sky with all its Bonfire Night fireworks. In the end, though, Sheila’s Island doesn’t quite deliver the “oohs” and “aahs”.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

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