Neville’s Island (review.) Anne Cox weathers the choppy waters of comedy

Neville's Island. Photo by Johan Persson
Neville's Island. Photo by Johan Persson

You can’t go a whole season without a bit of water sloshing about the stage at Chichester. For the Grapes of Wrath it was accompanied by a monsoon of Biblical proportions on opening night; for Singin’ In The Rain the first half dozen rows of nicely turned out patrons got sodden.

We arrived at the opening of Friday night’s Tim Firth 1992 award-winning comedy, Neville’s Island, to find it raining in the auditorium. After all, the story is set in The Lake District on Bonfire Night, so one should have anticipated a certain amount of precipitation.

What we didn’t anticipate was one of its four-man cast, actor, and now celebrity masterchef, Ade Edmondson, making a shock entrance that momentarily stunned a full house. It was a spectacular start that won him applause from a startled audience who wondered how the trick was achieved.

We then proceeded to watch as the rest- Rufus Hound, John Marquez and Tim McMullan - squelched onto the stage after being scuttled by their boat. There was then the delicate job of changing out of their wet clothes into dry while keeping the dialogue going and without revealing too much of themselves.

The guys, all middle management from a company in Salford, are on an outward bound course to see how they would cope in a crisis.

Naturally, things don’t go according to plan. They misread the clues and end up in the wrong place, on the wrong boat and, ultimately, stranded on an island enveloped in thick fog.

The story veers from an adult version of Lord Of The Flies to farce but it’s funny right from the start thanks to quite superb performances by all four men.

Edmondson plays Gordon. He’s a nasty, snide, sarcastic, critic who demeans every effort by the others to improve their situation. Throughout the play he does his best to belittle and pour scorn on his colleagues without actually coming up with anything constructive.

Marquez, taking time out from his TV role as the dopey plod in Doc Martin, feebly attempts to exert some authority as team leader. He wins a modicum of sympathy as he does his best to buoy up everyone’s downcast mood but successful problem solving isn’t really his forte.

It isn’t helped by the fact that one of their crew, “Religious Roy” (Hound), a born-again Christian and twitcher, is recovering from a nervous breakdown and Angus (McMullan) is struggling with the realisation that his wife has probably left him.

Rufus Hound, hot foot from the smash hit One Man Two Guvnors, triumphs as he again gets the lion’s share of the physical comedy. Roy, a man prone to praying and bursting into song, may be the baby of the group and the most vulnerable, but, perhaps, not as daft as he outwardly appears.

Angus is the target of Gordon’s scorn. His wife has sent him off with pretty much the entire contents of an outdoors shop, all individually packed in freezer bags with his clothes nicely name-tagged. He doesn’t escape the wrath of Gordon – particularly when the starving men lose their only sustenance to Angus blessing himself.

There’s a lot of laugh-out-loud humour as the four struggle, both with their situation and the conflict of personalities, but there are brief lulls in the stormy scenes where the dialogue plunges to bleak, murky, depths of Derwent Water. It’s possibly no coincidence, as it was he who commissioned Neville’s Island, that there’s more than a passing resemblance in style to Alan Ayckbourn’s dark comedies.

Will the men cope in a crisis and will they get through the night without murdering each other? What’s more will anyone notice their distress flare when fireworks are going off all around them?

It’s delightfully funny and one of the best comedies I’ve seen in ages.

Neville’s Island runs until September 28. For tickets and information contact the box office 01243 781312 or visit www.cft.org.uk

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