Last seen in London back in 2002 at the Royal Court (following a debut at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre), David Greig’s Outlying Islands makes a return to the capital, with Atticist’s new production at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. Directed by Jessica Lazar, it stars Jack McMillan, Tom Machell, Rose Wardlaw and Ken Drury, in a limited run of the play.
Inspired by the 12-year journey of naturalists John Ainslie and Robert Atkinson around the remote Scottish islands that began in 1935 (and resulted in the latter publishing a book – Island Going – in 1995), as well as the shady military history of the island Gruinard, the play is set in 1939 and follows young ornithologists Robert & John as they conduct a four-week study of the bird population on this unnamed island. The one they are most interested in is the fork-tailed petrel. The pair have been sent by “the Ministry” to gather information prior to the seemingly inevitable outbreak of war, and are accompanied on the island by Kirk and his niece Ellen, though none of them know the true purpose of this survey. The two young men definitely see it as more of an opportunity to follow their passion rather than doing their patriotic duty – but will this help or hinder them in their mission?
In the context of pub theatre productions this is a reasonably long one, with a 20-minute interval separating acts of 90 and 45 minutes (coming to around two and a half hours in total), though it is paced incredibly well and doesn’t suffer from any kind of lagging as it heads towards the break. It doesn’t seem as if the spacing has been forced in any way; the play begins in quite comedic fashion and is quite naturalistic, before descending into a slightly more fantastical state of affairs. The change in the characters also becomes apparent, as Robert & John become more entrenched in island life (the latter slowly shaking off his original restraint) and Ellen explores new freedoms. It doesn’t go full Lord of the Flies, but there are some obvious parallels there. A revival of this play now is a very timely act, as the world finds itself once again in a politically fragile state, with the far right on the rise – and the UK on the verge of isolating itself further from the European mainland. Not only that, but it’s a great example of a coming-of-age story that’s relatable to a changing world.
Anna Lewis’ set design is incredibly evocative of a remote island, with the rugged and also quite dreamlike nature of the place quite clear for all to see. The way the auditorium is laid out makes the performance space like an island of its own; the seating plan suggests a thrust setup, though in reality it’s more in the traverse (with a few banks of seats). Shorter patrons would be advised to avoid row B, as it’s on the same level as row A and you may miss the odd thing here & there – it doesn’t prevent you from following the action, but can be a little frustrating nonetheless.
There are some fine performances from the cast, who prove their ability to balance a comic touch with moments of poignancy and gravity. Ken Drury is suitably authoritative as both Kirk and the Captain, with a penchant for compensation claims as the former. Jack McMillan and Tom Machell are well matched as John and Robert, quite literally throwing themselves into their roles – as well as being something of a double act, they both have memorable moments as individuals (including an affecting scene later on in the play). Rose Wardlaw plays Ellen with a twinkle in her eye and a curiosity for the world around her, finely balancing her wish to embrace aspects of modernity with a respect for the world that she knows.
My verdict? A coming-of-age story that’s truly apt for our unstable & changing world, beautifully written and directed – the performances show a great comic & emotional understanding.
Outlying Islands runs at the King’s Head Theatre until 2 February 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.