It’s Bonfire night and Sheila (Tracy Collier), Denise (Abigail Thaw), Julie (Rina Fatania), and Fay (Emily Jane Kerr) are Team C in Pennine Mineral Water Ltd.’s annual outward-bound team-building weekend. Somehow, Sheila has been nominated team leader, and, using her cryptic crossword solving skills, has unwittingly stranded her team on an island in the Lake District.
Our intrepid heroines find themselves manufacturing weapons from cable ties and spatulas and create a rescue flag with plastic plates and a toasting fork.
Questions are asked; truths are told; dirty washing is aired.
Is it possible to build an adequate night shelter with a prom dress and a sleeveless jumper? What is Julie’s husband really up to in Aldi? And why are they on this bloody team building exercise when they could be at a spa?
An Yvonne Arnaud Theatre production, Sheila’s Island is an all-female reimagining from writer Tim Firth of his earlier piece, Neville’s Island, which was a humorous exploration of masculine toxicity, and which hinted at there being a better, female-influenced world. Unfortunately, rather than being an accompanying, sister-piece to the original, we have merely swapped gender with pretty much the same result which begs the question: what’s the point? It feels like a missed opportunity to do something fresh and different.
Director Joanna Read transports us to this barren location – with great assistance from Set & Costume Designer Liz Cooke – where the women will experience a real journey of self-discovery, but the characters are a little too stereotyped, the storyline a little too predictable and whilst occasional one-liners are laugh-out loud funny, many felt a little tired and too obvious.
There is some meat to the story which begins to unravel in the second half that touches on some real-life issues, but no sooner than it does – with an accompanying intake of breath from the audience – it then dispels them with some liberal doses of humour. It’s a shame because with a feminine angle in contrast to the original, I think we could have explored the drama of these much more. Equally, there is a risk in being too easily dismissive of issues such as grief, religion, and mental health which can cause greater harm so one must tread carefully.
In a further unexpected twist tonight – a moment of truth being stranger than fiction one might say – two of the original cast were lost to illness which saw understudy Collier purposefully stepping up and assistant director Kerr bravely stepping in.
The character of Sheila is very much a straight role until the end when an opportunity to close her circle is sadly missed but Collier delivers capably throughout. Kerr is presented with a multi-faceted Fay which, although understandably script in hand, she delivers well, and since she’s naturally expressive, I would be keen to see her performance when she’s hopefully off-book towards the end of this week’s run.
Fatania delivers the mixed up and easily confused Julie well, although it was perhaps written and played too much for laughs with the potential for something darker as her character unravels missed. Thaw captures the nuances of Denise brilliantly, a character we laugh with from the start but later come to question, although I would have preferred a resolution that draws us towards sympathy and understanding rather than despising her which ultimately places us very much on the same island as these women but maybe that’s what Firth intends.
Sheila’s Island is performing each day at 7.30pm at Liverpool Playhouse through to Saturday 9th April with additional matinee performances on Thursday (1,30pm) and Saturday (2pm). Further details https://www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/sheilas-island
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 5th April 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★