‘Puts in a bid to be one of the finest pub productions of 2019’
The irony of watching a play titled Outlying Islands about an isolated community where social, economic and sexual standards are being cast to the four winds at exactly the moment the House of Commons was overwhelmingly rejecting the Brexit deal was far too visible for its press night audience to miss.
But while the national psychodrama continues to play out elsewhere, this first revival of David Greig’s deep and resonant play since its first run way back in 2002 already puts in a bid to be one of the finest pub productions of 2019.
It’s a classic example of how a 150-minute play set in a single room and with only four main characters can, in focusing on a very small world, encompass themes universal, global and highly imaginative.
Two young ornithologists, fresh from Oxbridge, travel in August 1939 to the most remote of Scottish islands to survey the bird life there. They’re accompanied only by the island’s owner, Kirk (Ken Drury) a grasping old hypocrite devoted to decency and whisky, and his shy, demure, crushed niece, condemned to hard life serving menfolk.
They’ll be there a month with only a run-down shack of a chapel for shelter, only the clothes and rations they have with them, and no sign of a relieving boat until their time is done.
The men are friends, but also rivals – Robert (Tom Machell) impetuous, curious and irresponsible, is English and posher and more confident than John (Jack McMillan), Scottish, cautious, sexually inexperienced and shy. And they will, we know, be rivals for the affections of Ellen (Rose Wardlaw), especially once time and fate free her to shed some of the inhibitions of her upbringing to reveal a romantic and dreaming nature.
The play has precisely the same structure as Lord of the Flies, which it clearly resembles, from the arrival on the island through the loosening of restrictive social norms and the eventual arrival of a bearded strait-laced ship’s captain to restore some semblance of order. But it takes us stranger places, into the world of dreams and imagination. Kirk, the island’s slyly named owner, tells us early that it is a Pagan Place, and so it proves to be in ways entirely unpredictable.
Anna Lewis’s superb set creates both a grim living space and a windswept lonely rock set in a far distant sea. And there are moments of pure beauty in the performance – the whirling ‘hymn’ sung when a bereavement occurs is a shock and a joy, Robert’s wonder and curiosity as he glimpses a new bird or finds a new havoc to cause, and the perfect mating dance of two deeply shy characters finding connection through chance glances and half smiles.
Wardlaw, in particular gives a superb performance as Ellen, seeming at first too muted, but growing towards a bursting confidence expressed gorgeously in switches from repression to wanton mischief in a tiny upturn of her tightly drawn lips.
Sound and light are clever, and it’s no surprise on a flick through the programme to find a movement director in Jennifer Fletcher, reflected in an intricate choreography of shifting alliances, affections and rebuttals in a small room that creates a whole and a wonderful world.
Photo credit: Clive Barda
OUTLYING ISLANDS by David Greig
Directed by Jessica Lazar
Presented by Atticist
King’s Head, Islington 9 January to 2 February
Box Office: kingsheadtheatre.com/0207 226 8561
Reviewer David Weir’s plays include Confessional (Oran Mor, Glasgow) and Better Together (Jack Studio, Brockley, London