Review by Raphael Kohn
As you enter the Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham’s main fringe theatre venue, it is like stepping into another world. This is black box versatility at its finest, with a stage area covered in leaves and rocks now taking over the majority of the tiny room and immersing you into the world of the Old Joint Stock Theatre’s latest in-house production, Sheila’s Island.
And it is quite the feast for the eyes. With a large tree trunk-shaped set-piece situated on one side, natural materials filling the space and foliage suggested by the presence of tree-like constructions at the back of the stage, it is a marvel to see this small space being so vividly reimagined for this production. Concerning four colleagues stranded on an island in a lake in Cumbria while on a team-building exercise, Sheila’s Island follows the small cast as they attempt to survive and navigate a very new, and very unexpected teamwork exercise as they try to get off the island.
By any measure, it should be stunning. With a script by Tim Firth (whose other credits include Calendar Girls), one would certainly expect razor-sharp comedy and deeply thought-provoking writing. Alas, Firth’s script simply does not live up to expectations, delivering underwhelming jokes and unfortunately uninteresting dialogue. It also suffers from being far too long, never quite justifying its run time.
This extends to the characters too, all reduced to one-dimensional characters with one facet that is played on extensively for repeated laughs, yet all feel too shallow without any interesting backstories. The most we know is their jobs in the company they work for, and one of them has a sub-plot involving her mental health. Yet in the pursuit of trying to create a more interesting plot to develop, Firth negates actually developing any of the onstage quartet at all, leaving them empty and without any substance to the point that none of them were worth rooting for, or really caring about.
It's not for lack of trying by the pretty good cast, who do their best with what little material Firth gives them. Dru Stephenson does a remarkable job as Denise, given almost all of the comedic heavy lifting and plot development opportunities. She’s snarky, arrogant and a complete thorn in the side of the rest of the colleagues, and lights up the room with her perfect comedic timing and sarcasm, especially as she becomes progressively unhinged as the play progresses. It’s a shame, therefore, that the energy in the room slightly dips when she’s not in the limelight, with the rest of the characters feeling emptier. Susan Ratheram’s Faye is enjoyable enough as the overly knowledgeable nature expert, whose character does get a rare second dimension, but even despite the long runtime never quite feels fully developed.
This leaves Susan Graham’s titular Sheila at risk of becoming sidelined altogether as just the captain of the team in name only, who despite being the most endearing character, performed with charm by Graham, feels oddly marginalised in the overarching story as it progresses. Kaz Luckins’ Julie is funny enough, with her bag full of unexpected tools, but is more of a plot device to solve the characters’ problems than an actual character herself.
All of this makes for a team of performers who try to make the most out of Firth’s confusingly bland script, which throws a curveball in the shape of a badly misjudged sub-plot about mental health. No matter what the cast and creatives try to do to make this strand of the story acceptable, it feels uncomfortably insensitive and, especially for such a new play, feels a touch out of place in 2023.
And the creatives do try hard to make this a success, despite the drawbacks inherent in the writing. Daniele Sanderson’s direction tries to endear the characters to us as much as possible, trying to bring out the comedy in the play, and it works as much as it can. The play is genuinely funny at times, and certainly the dark comedy ending feels enticingly thought-provoking. Coupled with the superb set that has been put together in the small space of the Old Joint Stock, and it truly does show just how cleverly this production has been designed and conceived.
I left feeling impressed in a way – that such a text that really gives very little to work with has been brought to life so well. It’s tough to work with plays that have such drawbacks, but Sanderson and the cast do their very best to make the characters likeable and the situation real. It just goes to show how intelligent design and casting can make the most of what a team has to develop theatre that interests, and amuses, in such a small space.
Sheila’s Island plays at the Old Joint Stock Theatre until 14th October 2023. Tickets can be purchased from https://www.oldjointstock.co.uk/whats-on/sheilas-island