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Outlying Islands at The King’s Head Theatre | Review

Outlying Islands, Atticist at King's Head Theatre (courtesy Timothy Kelly)
Outlying Islands, Atticist at King’s Head Theatre (courtesy Timothy Kelly)

It’s a long one,” so I was forewarned before going into the theatre for this revival of Outlying Islands. Depends on your frame of reference, I suppose, but at two and a half hours (yes, there’s an interval) it’s the same running time as the West End’s The Phantom of the Opera. In other words, not that long. The Inheritance is long, as is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, both of which, like Shakespeare’s Henry IV, are in two parts.

That said, the script doesn’t clearly delineate where exactly the interval should fall, laid out as seven scenes. Set in 1939, in this play, two young men, John (Jack McMillan) and Robert (Tom Machell) have been sent to the Outer Hebrides by ‘The Ministry’ – meaning the Government, rather than the Salvation Army. They are to undertake a month-long survey of the birds that make their home on the island. There is a future plan for the island, which Kirk (Ken Drury), the island’s owner, knows about, but as it is deemed by ‘The Ministry’ to be ‘top secret’, I won’t venture into further particulars about it here.

Completing the set of on-stage characters is Ellen (Rose Wardlaw), Kirk’s niece. On one level, you can probably work out what happens when two young men and one young woman (the older Kirk, having served his purpose in the narrative, departs from the island, so to speak) are on a remote part of the country, with nothing but each other for company until a boat arrives at the end of the one month period to take the lads and all their birdwatching gear back to the mainland. But to suggest it might as well have been called Temptation Islands instead is too simplistic. While the observations about the behaviour of wildlife are too obviously compared to how humans sometimes do and sometimes could behave, mostly if not entirely by Robert, to the point that the play starts to feel contrived, there are some interesting, if leftfield, ideas.

Effectively left to their own devices, the mischievous and adventurous Robert repeatedly suggests he and John are at liberty to do what they like. But with a remit to undertake and only a few weeks to do it in, there isn’t enough time for a scenario straight out of Lord of the Flies. Instead, a lot of description and storytelling takes place – the audience is even either treated or subjected to a brief history of the island – for any city dwellers like yours truly in the audience who have no idea what it is really like to live somewhere so remote, the explanations of what is happening make the play easy to follow.

I found some of the music, or rather sounds, accompanying the dialogue to be distracting at best and jarring at worst. I don’t mean the rather realistic sounds of birds squawking and calling. Whenever Ellen speaks uninterrupted at length, for instance, there’s some low-level music that goes with these trains of thought. I just wished it would stop so I could hear Ellen unencumbered by it – the cast are quite capable of holding the audience’s attention without it.

A minor quibble, then, in a show has much to say about coming of age and knowing one’s own limits. There are simply some things that people cannot escape from, however far away from home they travel to. Steadily paced, as befits the setting in terms of both time period and location, this revival could arguably not have been better timed if it tried. There’s a moment during which Ellen, John and Robert consider what sort of future lies in store for the island. There have been, whatever one’s political leanings, a lot of people thinking along those lines: what lies in store for the future of the country? This intriguing and nuanced production has plenty of food for thought.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

1939, Scotland. Two young ornithologists arrive on a remote island. They’ve been tasked by the Ministry to conduct a study of the bird population. With only the island’s authoritarian leaseholder and his niece for company, they find themselves drawn to the wildness of the island, igniting growing tensions and repressed passions. Blurring the line between fantasy and reality, Greig’s poetic, funny, and politically charged play explores a society on the edge of immense change.

Producer Atticist in association with the King’s Head Theatre
Director Jessica Lazar
Designer Anna Lewis
Lighting Design David Doyle
Sound Design Christopher Preece
Movement Director Jennifer Fletcher

King’s Head Theatre
Wednesday 9 January- Saturday 2 February 2019
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including interval


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