Pros: Excellent performances, an imaginative set and a razor-sharp script.
Cons: Take a drink in for the 90-minute first half.
The back room of the King’s Head Theatre is transformed into a remote island in the Outer Hebrides: rough stone walls and a rustic door create a disused chapel, its hard earth floor strewn with stones. In the distance, a mountain peak rises over the scene. Anna Lewis’s inspired design is convincing, and perfectly realised.
It’s August 1939, the eve of the Second World War, and two ornithologists have been sent by The Ministry to evaluate bird life on the island. Robert (Tom Machell) is tall, patrician, a sophisticated rogue straight out of Brideshead Revisited. John (Jack McMillan) is his Cambridge friend, an honourable Edinburgh virgin, and the two have an uneasy friendship sealed by their love of bird life.
They’re admitted to the island by Kirk (Ken Drury), a grizzled livestock farmer whose main preoccupation is making The Ministry stump up as much compensation as possible for the loss of his sheep-grazing rights. He despairs of the advent of what he sees as the pagan lifestyle: “Women have begun to uncover their heads. Cinemas have arisen.” His niece, Ellen (Rose Wardlaw) is young, isolated, and obsessed with the cinemas her uncle despises, with films as her only escape from harsh reality.
At first the visitors struggle to adapt to the island conditions. “I’ve never eaten puffin,” says Robert. “Tastes of fish oil,” Ellen replies, before serving him the broth. “It tastes like chicken cooked in axle grease,” Robert concludes. Ellen, confined to a lonely existence, seeks solace in the films of Laurel and Hardy, and won’t have her way of life dismissed. “We may be far from London,” she declares, “but we’re not remote from the sensibilities of people such as yourselves.”
Tensions build between the four, as the horrifying truth of why The Ministry has commissioned the wildlife survey gradually comes to light. Is this pure scientific discovery, or is there a more sinister purpose to the ornithologists’ endeavours? Will Kirk agree to anything to cash in on his windfall? Will John finally lose his virginity? Or will Robert beat him once again? “According to Darwin we should fight for her,” Robert declares, adding: “But according to Darwin she’d sleep with the loser as well.”
This is the first revival of Outlying Islands since its premiere at the Royal Court in 2002, and it’s as near perfect as a play can get. Its witty script intersperses comedy with pathos, combining farce and tragedy to powerful effect. The outstanding cast create a tense microsociety, with powerful portrayals from all – especially Rose Wardlaw as the downtrodden Ellen, whose luminous performance reveals an astonishing depth of character.
The long first half, at 90 minutes, takes place in real time, giving way to a 45-minute second half set three days later. Jessica Lazar’s taut direction, complemented by Jennifer Fletcher’s nimble movement direction and Christopher Preece’s evocative sound design, combine to create a compelling, witty, and at times devastating drama. Fringe theatre doesn’t get any better than this.
Author: David Greig
Director: Jessica Lazar
Producer: Atticist Productions
Booking until: 2 February 2019
Box Office: 0207 226 8561
Booking Link: https://system.spektrix.com/kingsheadtheatre/website/eventdetails.aspx?WebEventId=outlyingislands