A list of the best stage entrances ever would have to include a group of middle-aged men climbing out of a river dripping wet onto a stark, rocky island. It is the perfect preface to Tim Firth’s witty survival farce Neville’s Island now playing at Olney Theatre Center.
A group of four English middle-managers are participating in a company team-building weekend where things go from bad to hilariously worse. After running their raft into a rock, the men slowly realize that their too-clever interpretation of cryptic clues has taken them way off the beaten track in what Gordon (Michael Glenn) describes as a “bloody cockeyed exercise.”
The dyspeptic Gordon is the grumpiest of the four, having lost his rucksack of supplies in the lake. His sarcastic, cuttingly funny comments and his working class background set him apart from his compatriots.
Neville (Michael Russotto) was appointed captain of the team. He is a mild-mannered, kindly, yet hapless soul. He is determined to keep a stiff upper lip and hold the fellows together in what he prefers to think of as a “holiday,” not a crisis.
It is not an easy task. Roy (Bolton Marsh) is an amateur ornithologist who is more concerned about following a falcon than focusing on the group’s plight. Roy is “doowally,” i.e., a fragile fruitcake who recently took thirteen months off from work to recover from a nervous breakdown. His devout Christian faith helps him hold on by the barest of threads.
Rounding out the bunch is the clumsy, anal Angus (Todd Scofield). His rucksack is a source of never-ending supplies and laughs, as he spent a fortune at an outdoors store buying every tool that the salesman claimed was “indispensable.”
Firth is an experienced writer for both stage and screen (films include Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots, the latter of which is now also a Broadway musical). His dialogue is intelligent and his comic instincts are unfailing. For most of the play, Firth threads the needle in allowing the audience both to laugh at the characters and empathize with them.
The talented ensemble completely lives up to Firth’s writing. All of the actors fully inhabit their distinctive characters and commit to the reality of the situation, which enhances both the comedy and the more serious moments to come. Even when Firth’s comic payoff can be seen coming, the cast invariably wrings out laughter from the audience.
Michael Glenn’s Gordon is given the majority of funny zingers, and he delivers them with zest. The other three actors, however, all have their fine moments individually and collectively.
Early on, the laughs earned by the actors slapping themselves to warm up and cautiously changing clothes with the help of towels provides a promising indicator of the fun to come.
The cast is well-supported by the Olney artistic team. Russell Parkman’s stark, desolate island of rocks and barren trees is an ideal setting for the play, and Joel Moritz’s lighting design and the sound design of Will Pickens complement the action convincingly.
Lynn Watson also deserves a shout out for her contributions a dialect coach. All of the accents are distinct, consistent, and appropriate to the class and background of the characters.
Closes April 28, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $31 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
One wonders if Neville’s Island would be even more popular if Firth had been content to write a wonderful character-driven farce. As the plight of the characters worsen, he does more than ratchet up the anger and desperation of the characters. He takes the story in an increasingly dark direction that makes the many themes (class differences and resentments, middle aged crisis, the validity of religion, etc.) start to feel heavy-handed. Interestingly, a 1998 filmed version of the play was cut to 85 minutes.
Overall, Neville’s Island is given a gem of a production at Olney Theatre Center. If you have ever enjoyed a comedy on the BBC channel, you will feel right at home at Neville’s Island.
Neville’s Island . written by Tim Firth . Directed by Jason King Jones . Featuring Todd Scofield, Michael Glenn, Bolton Marsh and Michael Russotto . Scenic Design: Russell Parkman . Costume Design: Martha Hally . Lighting Design: Joel Moritz . Sound Design: Will Pickens . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.