Review: Sheila’s Island (touring) Derby Theatre

Sheila’s Island at Derby Theatre

The most persuasive argument against team building I’ve seen …

This gender-swapped version of Tim Firth’s comedy Neville’s Island, directed by Joanna Read sees a corporate team-building activity go wrong as four middle-managers from Pennine Mineral Water Ltd become stranded on an island in the Lake District.

This isn’t the postcard perfect Lake District you may be familiar with. Liz Cooke’s set leans into the darker side of the story with unfriendly rocky terrain and foreboding shadowy trees lining the stage. Integrating water into the stage sets the scene perfectly, and proves essential for some of the earlier laughs. The sound and lighting teams are -as always – indispensable, conveying so much context to a static set.  The topical music choices, including I Will Survive as you enter the theatre, orchestrates the mood before you  even sit down.

Starring Sara Crowe (Private Lives  Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Fay, Rina Fatania as Julie, Judy Flynn (Dinnerladies, Call The Midwife) as Sheila, and Abigail Thaw (Endeavour) as Denise, the four-strong cast fill their corporate stereotypes well. Each establish their distinct character from the off, from subdued Fay who gains the audience sympathy vote, to ringleader Sheila saddled with the difficult task of keeping spirits high.

Chronically sarcastic Denise starts as a favourite who is suitably unimpressed with the situation, and bounces off Flynn’s Sheila well with some great moments of bantering dialogue. Boisterous ditz Julie is the most fun of the lot, with her ridiculously oversized rucksack and fantastic comedic timing in revealing her Mary Poppins style packing skills.

The first act launches straight into lighthearted humour as the characters emerge looking prepared for an extreme Duke of Edinburgh hike and attempt to overcome the numerous hurdles from the situation they find themselves in with much frustration. While the story drifts slowly in parts, and could have been cut back by about 20 minutes for a snappier performance, the cast work hard to keep it engaging and generate constant laughter. It’s just a shame the cast aren’t amplified better, since the rolls of laughter often prevent the next punchline from being heard.

All the characters gradually become the worst versions of themselves as they despair and descend into madness after being stranded for days. Denise’s abrupt barbs start to be more malicious and cruel, and, without any perceivable danger or pressure to instigate the change, her viciousness leaves little room for sympathy from the audience.

The attempt to switch to a darker tone a la Lord of the Flies savagery in act two is rather uncomfortable. The language and conversations around mental health and suicide may have been the norm when Firth wrote Neville’s Island in the 90s, but 30 years later the writing just comes across as insensitive and doesn’t quite hit the dark comedy category it’s perhaps aiming for.

Nonetheless it ticks the comedy box most of the time, and is definitely one to watch if you want to feel appreciative of your own work colleagues!

Sheila’s Island is showing at Derby Theatre until 28th March, and tickets can be purchased here: https://www.derbytheatre.co.uk/sheilas-island-by-yvonne-arnaud-theatre

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