TIM Firth’s play Sheila’s Island – a sort of gender-swapped version of his 1992 Neville’s Island – is touring the UK in a production by Joanna Read.
When it opened at Bath Theatre Royal on 11th May, one of its four actors, Abigail Thaw, was indisposed, and the remarkable Tracy Collier got the chance to play Denise. She’s remarkable because she understudies ALL FOUR roles, so it’s she who knows every word of the play and is ready to step in as Sheila, Denise, Julie or Fay. She got a well-deserved standing ovation for her reading of the incisive, witty and unpleasant production manager of a mineral water company.
The premise, as in the earlier play, is of four middle managers on a team-building exercise stuck on an island in Derwentwater and how they will respond to increasing perceived hazards. It’s one of those plays that teeters between reality and fantasy, relying on outrageous stereotyping and ridiculous situations, bound together by squeal-with-laughter lines.
It is both infuriatingly predictable and totally incredible, depending on the four performers to mix the ingredients into an enjoyable evening at the theatre. From the reaction of the Bath audience, it was a marmite experience. Some whooped and bellowed, some left at the interval.
The differences between how men and women react to situations provide an interesting framework, but those corporate team antics are, hopefully, a thing of pre-Covid, and by the time Sheila took over from Neville as team leader, lots of the ideas seem very dated.
July Flynn is Sheila, someone who over-analyses and complicates, hence the quartet’s “shipwreck” on an island rather than cosying up in a country pub for the night..
Rina Fatania, a familiar face to Kneehigh audiences in the south west, is the uxorious Julie, and perhaps her character translates best from the men’s version. Certainly her designer packed rucksack provides a treasure chest of laughs.
Sara Crowe needs all her undoubted skills to bring the anguished born-again Fay to convincing life.
The evening begins with INCREDIBLY LOUD music, so that for the ten minutes before curtain up, audience members have to shout to one another. The volume continues once the action starts. That leaves four women with voices of very similar timbre often struggling for audibility.
The lighting and sound team are busy with the whizz-bangs of Guy Fawkes Night and party boats.
I guess if you were a fan of the premise of Neville’s Island, and of these excellent actresses, Sheila’s Island will be a huge hit for you.