Written by Tim Firth
Directed by Joanna Reid
Training days. Excursion missions. Trust exercises. Does anyone enjoy mandatory work events like these? If they do, they’re the ones to avoid at the office party. A reimagining of their comedic play Neville’s Island, Tim Firth adapts their work for an all-female cast, following similar structural and narrative threads, tweaking others into Sheila’s Island.
After triumphantly declaring their success with solving the work-issued cryptic puzzle clues, Marketing Manager Sheila proudly lands (well, sinks) the boat on the coast of a small island in the Lake District. A training weekend with work, Sheila’s team of Denise, Julie, Faye and herself doesn’t get off to the best of starts. Especially once Faye comments how the star constellations which led them to this discovery share an odd similarity with the pub a few miles from the hotel…
All the components are present – frustratingly obvious to audiences where the failures lurk within the production. Firth’s script is rather brilliant, pertaining enough dark twists and variety to maintain an audience, and ever so slightly lift Sheila’s Island from clear-but comedy and tickles the skirted edges of something more – though little comes from this regrettably. Judy Flynn’s Sheila has a natural presence throughout, a lynchpin of sorts for the story to progress while her own development falters somewhat until the finale. Flynn’s comedy is at its best when bouncing off another, particularly the more acidic nature of Abigail Thaw’s Denise.
Diametric, Denise and Faye (Sara Crowe) frequently find themselves on one another’s toes, though Thaw’s Denise does 99.9% of the stepping. Crowe is tender, relatable despite the religious connotations for non-believers, and achieves this skirting of a more intimate nature to the show. Her history with mental health and taking time away from work to the ire of colleagues is a sympathetic one – in a world where people pit themselves against one another, rather than challenging the woefully inept conditions.
But where frays appear within the direction and limitations of character, one must remark on Tracy Collier’s capability as principal understudy to the production, filling the role of HR manager Julie, Rina Fatania’s usual part. There’s little to suggest to audiences this is a substitution – Collier taking up the mantle with ease, and likely carrying the role as her interpretation.
Lord of the Flies meets Dinnerladies, Sheila’s Island lays at the sodden feet of its cast – they are a necessity for success, and while doing their utmost, are let down exceptionally by Joanna Read’s comedic direction. There’s no sense of urgency or pacing jokes hang onto the cliff-edges of humour far longer than they ought to have landed. The make-shift flags, the secret to what Julie’s hubby is really up to in Aldi, and the ever-expanding collection located with her rucksack all set-up tremendous belly aches, but more often than not drop off. Jokes don’t fall flat – they just never arrive, much like our intrepid office workers rescuers.
But there are worse places to be trapped, for one Liz Cooke’s set design may seem unremarkable, but in truth plays a significant amount of world-building. Largely monochrome, with the sharp branches and a pool of water present at all times, the moving trees offer a sense of scale for the island – though could have been aided more with Paul Anderson’s lighting, which finds peak with fireworks and boat spotlights.
What Sheila’s Island needs is more. More time, more laughs, more direction, more sausages and more dirt and mud. To say not enough suffering is occurring on-stage may seem cruel, but to snare the audience’s sympathy needs to come from somewhere, and unfortunately, this isn’t found within Read’s direction. A competent selection of performers, all capable and renowned for their dramatic and comedic performances, left to fend for themselves on a secluded island – Firth’s all-female adaptation may indeed be a comedy within the thick fog, but it appears to have clouded one too many decisions.
Sheila’s Island runs at The King’s Theatre until March 5th. Tickets can be obtained here.