Tim Firth (Calendar Girls and Kinky boots) has been delighting audiences for decades with his productions. Now Sheila’s Island is an all-female reimagining of his earlier work, Neville’s Island is bringing his work to a brand new audience.
Four middle aged middle management employees of Pennine Mineral Water Ltd, are on their annual outward bound team bonding weekend. Team leader Sheila has read the clues far too closely and her love a cryptic crossword has caused the ladies to end up in the middle of nowhere in the Lake District as the fog gathers in before Bonfire Night Weekend. As the days come and go, tensions rise, and communications devices fail. There’s not a crumb food in sight, just one sausage and relationships have become rather frayed.
As Sheila (Judy Flynn) hauls herself through Liz Cooke’s dramatic set, complete with trees and a lake, the audience is plunged into their journey of comic misery. Firth’s text is a fruitcake of layered one liners- being fired at the audience line after line, as status and stature disappear and the characters find themselves as desperate equals, clinging onto survival and yes, that one solitary sausage. With Waiting for Godot like undertones, the audience are taken on a roller-coaster of disarray as the women make the best of a truly terrible situation.
There’s some lighthearted humor here, and yet the script doesn’t seem to identify fully with a genre. In this comedy drama which is at times too comic, and also too dramatic for the label, Firth sets up some serious plot devices that never fully land. Denise (Abigail Thaw) comes across as a sour character, delivering hilarious one liners steeped in jealousy. But after the interval, the device falls thin, and Denise goes from being a sad jester to a truly despise able character. Tracey Collier (understudy) steps up to play Julie, giving a fantastically strong performance as a character who weathers Denisse’ constant emotional beating. Meanwhile Sheila’s character (Judy Flynn) never gets the projector they deserve. Surrounded by chaos, and despite being on a team building exercise, Flynn remains as feebly positive as the moment she arrives- letting bullying and disarray continue. Come the final scene, her inability to grow as a character renders her as unhelpful and unlikeable as Denise which makes for a disappointing character resolution for the main character.
Jon Nicholl’s sound design with short jolly guitar riffs leaves us wondering if we’re watching an episode of Benidorm that got very dark too quickly. And yet, arguably not dark enough. Firth never fully faces Fay’s breakdown and thirteen months off work- instead using it as a device as if to suggest the character may make some tragic decisions. There’s real dark humor to be explored that never comes into fruition, and because it does and fails to properly address appears to make some sort of gimmick of grief, Christianity and mental health. Despite the weakness of the script, Crowe gives an emotionally uplifting performance that elicits warmth and support from the audience.
There’s no doubt about it, Thaw, Flynn, Crowe and Collier make for a tightly bounded cast, who work hard to carry the momentum of this marathon production. The audience do love it, there’s laughter throughout albeit some jokes are nothing more than corny. But what does Firth have to say? Little both through comedy and drama. Yes, underneath the job titles, designer clothes and fancy house addresses we’re all human- but it’s been said a million times before, too much greater effect.
This production runs at the King’s Theatre until Saturday 5th March, https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/sheilas-island
Reviewer: Melissa Jones
Reviewed: 01st March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★