As the year draws to a close Theatre West have produced a season of new plays, of which The Islanders is the third of five. The setup – a one-act preceded by a short piece by another upcoming writer – not only allows for a showcase of the latest writing by the west’s rising talent, but also for a reflection of the topical issues that theatre’s emerging writers are exploring.
Tory MP Claire is called back to the island on which she grew up – the constituency she now represents in Parliament – where the resident islanders are reeling from the latest in a series of building collapses caused by rising sea levels. Although the many locals – all played by the two supporting actors – spoke in thick west country accents, for some reason I imagined ‘the Isle’ to be in Scotland; perhaps because Claire’s being so far away in London for much of the year was such a foregrounded theme. Bristol was referred to at one point, so we knew we weren’t ‘here’ – but, of course, the vagueness in geography allowed the story to feel simultaneously local and universal.
All the performances were solid and engaging, and the characterisation was particularly enjoyable – Rosanna Miles gave a melodramatic portrayal of a sincerity-chasing career politician, which nicely illustrated an ego-led desperation to appear to be doing the right thing. While I don’t disagree with this reading of political behaviour, I couldn’t decide whether this felt fully three dimensional. However, it did bolster the relentless inabilities of the mentally-, geographically-, and experientially-detached leader focused on placating rather than assisting her constituents.
Joel Parry provided much comic relief in his portrayal of key locals and antagonists; there wasn’t a huge variation in his accent or characterisation – occasionally it was hard to tell whether Bob or The Man Who Wants a License to Shoot Pigeons was speaking – but he performed all with gusto. Claire Sullivan’s recently-home-and-business-less Major was particularly warming, her small frame mimicking that of a frail old man and her thousand-yard stare drawing us into his grief. Similarly, her portrayal of young and eager political aide Anna, whose willingness to admit to the realities of climate change and the subsequent necessity to manipulate the Islanders, was delivered with a frighteningly charming innocence.
The script was tight, the characters well-directed and the story accessible – it is difficult to do behind-the-scenes political dramas following the success of The Thick of It, because everything compares and almost nothing can match it. Indeed, a Tucker-esque character appeared towards the end and swore a lot, and I wished so much that the character had completely diverged from the newly-stereotyped Hardball Spin Doctor. In that vein, there were many ways the story could have been more adventurous and/or perilous, but the real success was in the interaction between characters and the pacing of the story. I was unsure as to whether Claire’s final ‘redemption’ was intended to illustrate the futility of party politics or act as a sincere resolution for the arc of the character – for me, it was certainly the former, and I would’ve liked a clearer, bolder finale.
I’ve seen many plays about climate change recently, and not all of them work. The Islanders fares well as a story about the lack of political will to address the most urgent of society’s needs, and for the company’s next installment I’d simply like a more radical treatment. Ultimately, I’d love to see more from all involved and highly recommend catching it in the last couple of days of its run. It continues until Saturday 14th Nov at PRSC’s The Space on the corner of Jamaica St and Hillgrove St.