Neville’s Island - The Play Produced
The Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth, production of
A comedy in thick fog
Note: the production described in this article was staged in September 1997. During rehearsal, the magazine Amateur Stage contacted me and invited me to write an article on the experience for their regular feature The Play Produced.
What follows is the full text of the article as originally submitted; the published version was edited slightly to fit the available space. In addition to photos of the production, I’ve included some of the pictures I took on my research visit to Rampsholme (the real "Neville’s Island".)
Tim Firth is best known as creator and sole writer of the BBC comedy drama Preston Front, but he began his career writing for the stage, and Neville’s Island (commissioned for the Stephen Joseph Theatre by Alan Ayckbourn in 1992) was his first major work. Revived in Nottingham in 1994, the subsequent West End transfer proved popular with audiences and critics alike and was nominated for an Olivier award.
Neville’s Island is a tempting choice for amateurs: wickedly funny, with a leavening of genuine drama; four well-defined and meaty character roles; and no four-letter words or nudity unless towels are accidentally dropped in the changing scene! However, the piece also presents many challenges, calling as it does for an area of water on stage, numerous special effects and some highly unusual props. This article describes how one amateur company tackled it.
Plot and Casting
The play is set on Rampsholme, a tiny island in the middle of Derwentwater, where four middle-managers on a team-building exercise have become shipwrecked. Their pathetic attempts to get themselves rescued are hampered by their inability to cooperate as much as by their ineptitude in the Great Outdoors, and what should have been a bonding process gradually becomes a muddy, bloody fight for survival.
The four characters are: Neville, whom the others have elected Captain and who has promptly proved his unfitness for the post by leading his team confidently in the wrong direction; Gordon, the dour malcontent whose cruel sarcasm provides many of the play’s funniest one-liners; Angus, the somewhat dim-witted loser who appears to have bought up a camping shop’s entire stock for the trip; and Roy, a born-again Christian who has recently returned to work following a prolonged breakdown and who is heading, in the play’s considerably darker second half, for a spectacular relapse.
All four are supposedly forty-something, and are described in
quite specific physical terms in the script Neville is
"quite small", Gordon "imposing" and so on. I felt it was more
important to cast actors of the right calibre than stick too
rigidly to these descriptions, so the eventual cast ranged in
age from 33 to 50, with Neville as the tallest of the four. Six
actors auditioned for the four roles; in the final casting, I
tried to balance individual suitability and talent with how I
felt they would work as a team. This ultimately proved very
successful, which was somewhat ironic in a play about a
team-building exercise gone wrong!
Research and Planning
At roughly two hundred feet long by a hundred feet wide, Rampsholme is the smallest of the four main islands on Derwentwater. While plays have been set in real places before, there surely cannot be many whose location is so precisely pinned down to a few square yards of the earth’s surface. With this in mind, I set off for the Lake District in February, seven months in advance of the production, to see Rampsholme for myself and take some photographs. (The play is set in November, so I wanted to visit the island before the new season’s foliage rendered it too "pretty".) I hired a boat from Keswick, rowed the mile or so down the lake to the island and circled it to take photographs from all angles, before managing to land on a shingly beach on the northern shore and roam the interior.
Although I undertook this trip principally for my own interest, the results were to prove very useful. The photographs were a valuable source of reference for the production designer, and helped to give the cast a feel for the kind of environment in which their characters were stranded. (Later, during the run, some of the prints were mounted for a foyer display.) Also, having a clear picture of the local geography in my mind meant that, in rehearsals, I always had a ready answer to questions such as "When I point towards Keswick, which way is it?"
Visiting Rampsholme certainly isn’t an essential part of
preparing for this play, but it is useful and
fun! At the very least, a director should be armed with a decent
map of the area, such as No. 4 in the OS Outdoor Leisure series.
The standard rehearsal period at the Talisman is four nights a week for six weeks the first four weeks in the rehearsal studio, the final two on stage. Apart from some overlap with cast holidays in the first week and a couple of nights off over the August Bank Holiday, all the cast were called for all rehearsal nights, with the schedule in the early stages being structured so that we covered every part of the play at least once a week. This approach reinforced the "teamwork" concept, and also maintained continuity there is nothing worse than devoting an entire evening to getting one small scene right in every detail, then returning to it two weeks later to find that half the work done has been forgotten.
The luxury of rehearsing a play with a small number of equally important characters is that everyone feels involved; you can devote time to each actor, never worrying that people in minor roles are getting fed up because they’ve waited all evening to do a couple of lines. The down side is that the burden of learning the script is correspondingly greater for each actor; it’s worth noting that Gordon and Angus, in particular, are quite substantial roles in terms of text.
The characters developed organically in rehearsal, with my role being to encourage each actor to seek out the defining qualities of his character in the text and then shape these according to his own experience. I also like to analyse each character’s distinctive speech rhythms and verbal tics, and ask what that tells us about him; for example, a substantial number of Neville’s lines begin with the interjection, "Right...", as if attempting to project a businesslike front when flustered.
I did not block the play in advance, preferring to rely on the
actors’ instincts initially, and stepping in to make adjustments
if a scene became too static or there were problems with
masking. In any case, much of the movement and positioning
developed on the level floor of the rehearsal studio had to be
adjusted when we got onto the multi-level set.
The script calls for a single set combining two locations: a peninsula with a shingly beach and grassy scrub leading up to dark tree cover; and, in another part of the island, a tree with a horizontal branch that can be used as a look-out post. From the outset, I had a number of clear ideas about the set design. I felt strongly that the mood of the play called for a set that was more realistic than stylised. It had to have water as an integral element not just for the opening scene where the characters crawl, drenched and dripping, out of the lake, but also for the later scene where Gordon scrambles about in the shallows trying to catch a fish by hitting it over the head with a portable phone. It had to be at least partially raked and it had to be possible to walk on the raked area without it sounding hollow and false.
My set designer concurred with all of this, though he had
concerns about the water not so much the technical
aspects of construction and containment, but rather the problems
of lighting it and the likelihood of unwanted reflections on the
side flats and cyc wall. Also, we both felt that having a
visible water surface that simply sat there like a garden pond,
rather than lapping up the shore in waves, would look phoney
anyway. In the end, the water was therefore confined to a trough
that ran from behind the set along the back of the raked
peninsula, and through which the actors could crawl before
emerging over the top of the rake like spent fish. (For obvious
reasons, the trough came to be not-so-affectionately known by
the cast as "the sheep dip".) This approach meant that, while
the water surface was invisible to the audience, they could see
and hear the copious splashing as each character "swam" in to
shore. The original intention was to have the trough
custom-moulded by a garden pond manufacturer, but in the end it
proved simpler and cheaper to build it from a wooden frame lined
with tarpaulin and heavy-duty polythene.
The peninsula itself was a kind of mound covering roughly two thirds of the stage and terraced to include some level playing areas. It was built from a timber frame, cladded with overlapping panels of leftover hardboard and plywood. The entire mound was then covered with rubberised carpeting to unify the surface and deaden the noise made when it was walked upon; the carpet was stapled down, treated with a priming material and then given several layers of paint to provide a suitably autumnal colour scheme.
At the mound’s summit were three trees, one having split and fallen across the other two to form an H shape. The crossbar of the H made a platform that could be used as the look-out tree; for these scenes, the area was isolated with lighting to indicate that we were in another part of the island.
Several overlapping areas of gauze were suspended over the set and painted to match the murky sky of the backdrop. The intention was that these could be lit in different ways to suggest differing intensities of fog a seemingly good idea at first which, in realisation, became probably the least convincing part of the set.
The set was finished off with some small wire frame and foam
rubber bushes, and was dressed with liberal quantities of fir
cones, twigs, dead leaves and pebbles (mostly real, but with
some papier maché ones for safety reasons in the area
where Gordon and Angus have their climactic fight scene).
A number of full-stage lighting states were used to indicate different times of day, ranging from a cold and foggy daybreak through to sunset, dusk and moonlight, plus localised lighting around the look-out tree. Several special effects were also needed, including a twig fire that would "light" on cue (this was a prop, containing a gelled pygmy bulb, that was set in the blackout and plugged into a concealed socket on the peninsula), various coloured fireworks exploding overhead, and shafts of light from above to heighten dramatic moments such as Roy’s "resurrection".
Most of these requirements were fulfilled from theatre stock, but two effects called for specialist equipment hire: the light that moves across the peninsula (turning from white to flashing red in the process) as the ferry passes near the end of Act 1, and the helicopter searchlight that stalks the island in the dramatic climax to Act 2. Both of these were Martin lights with motorised mirrors, programmed to step through a pre-arranged sequence of moves and controlled from an offstage PC independently of our regular lighting computer. (At the point where the helicopter searchlight swings round and strikes the men, it was augmented by fixed Parcans to create the dazzling brightness the scene demands.)
The lighting was augmented throughout with fog effects using a standard smoke machine. This was operated from the wings by an ASM (directed via headset from the lighting box), using a large piece of board to break up the fog and waft it realistically across the set.
The script gives very precise details of what each character is wearing at the start. This seems odd, as they only keep these clothes on for a few pages before changing into dry gear, which isn’t described at all. We assumed it would be similar but perhaps not quite so good "second best" or less suitable outdoor clothing, for instance shoes rather than boots. Also, Gordon’s dry clothes are borrowed from Angus and were just ordinary warm winter clothing rather than walking gear and of course not a perfect fit!
The costumes were mostly a straightforward mix of theatre stock, the cast’s own and a few items bought from charity shops; but the most arduous job for the wardrobe supervisor occurred each night of the run, when she had to drag home a couple of large plastic sacks full of wet clothes to be spun and tumble dried and brought back the next evening one of many sainted individuals who worked on this show.
There is only one point in the script that mentions the use of incidental music (Act 2 Scene 8); exactly why is unclear. Whatever, I wanted to use music throughout the play, to create atmosphere and enhance the emotional impact of certain scenes. I feel strongly that music is often used unimaginatively in amateur theatre, as pre-curtain "wallpaper" or as a filler during scene changes. Applied with care and sensitivity, it can be used to underscore particular scenes in much the same way that film soundtracks do, heightening the mood without detracting from the actor’s performance.
Most of the music cues came from two well-known ballet suites by Stravinsky: The Rite Of Spring and The Firebird. The ethereal first half-minute or so of the latter’s final hymn, for instance, made an inspiring beginning to Act 1 Scene 3, marking a contrast between the petty bickering of the cricket game in Scene 2 and Roy’s single-minded pursuit of his beautiful Arctic falcon; while Neville’s hunt across the island for the now-deranged Roy in Act 2 Scene 8 was rendered considerably creepier when accompanied by Firebird’s menacing opening bars.
The finale moved into different territory with Alan Silvestri’s
glorious title music for the film The Abyss. The
opening angelic chorus underscored Roy’s prayer at the end of
Act 2 Scene 8, and was briefly reprised for his ghostly
reappearance near the end. I used the track’s final crescendo
underneath Roy’s song (the tune fitted the scripted words
perfectly) and the approach of the helicopter, building to a
tumultuous climax as the searchlight hit the group. Then, as the
music dies away to leave just the heavenly chorus once more, the
helicopter sound faded along with all the lights except for a
single spot on Roy, who stood smiling up into it, lost in his
I decided that following the script directions by having the sound of flapping wood pigeons taking off, circling and landing over virtually every scene transition would rapidly become tiresome; and I was relieved to have dispensed with it when the effect proved difficult to create convincingly for the few cues when it is required. Instead, the sound of lapping water was used to maintain continuity during most of the blackouts between scenes, and also as pre-show atmosphere (the production did not use tabs).
The effect of the passing ferry was a monster to put together: boat engine noise, splashing water, Manfred Mann singing Doo Wah Diddy, the DJ’s voice, crowd noise, Denise (the karaoke singer) and her backing track all mixed together and cross-faded between speakers to create the effect of moving around the island, while gradually receding in volume. Finding the karaoke track for It’s Not Unusual proved well-nigh impossible until a copy was tracked down in Australia! The MIDI-encoded music was received via email and in use the same evening. The ubiquitous PC was also used for digital sound editing, making easy work of tasks like looping the helicopter effect, removing glitches from sounds pulled off effects discs and shortening or extending music cues as required to fit the action. Once edited, the effects were transferred to minidisc for cueing in performance.
Angus’s rucksack and its contents are a nightmare. A huge variety of props are produced from this Aladdin’s Cave; we had no choice but to buy much of the outdoor equipment, as it all has to look brand new. The rucksack was packed at the start of the play with all the items needed in Act 1, then struck and re-packed for Act 2 in the interval.
A self-igniting portable stove proved surprisingly difficult to track down, but after trying all the major local camping suppliers we eventually found one in a small military surplus shop in Coventry. They also sold us Angus’s 18" long "survival knife", receipt of which I had to acknowledge by signing the West Midlands Police Knife Register! Even after blunting down, this was still a pretty hefty weapon, and the fight scene needed rigorous choreographing to ensure the actors’ safety.
The sparklers in Act 1 Scene 5 were the small party variety, but their use still meant we had to fireproof the camouflage net that is on stage in the same scene.
Surprisingly, after all this, the most unusual prop proved the
simplest to obtain. The gutted and bloody gyrfalcon that Roy
brings on at the climax was initially a worry; but when we
contacted the Royal Theatre, Northampton, who had staged
Neville’s Island earlier in the year, they were
happy to lend us theirs and a beautifully made prop it
was too. The moment when Roy, presumed dead, appeared in a shaft
of light with the dead bird slung over his shoulder, its
outspread snow-white wings giving him the appearance of an
angel, made an unforgettable theatrical image.
Neville’s Island proved to be a hugely rewarding
play to direct. It posed enormous challenges to all departments
of the theatre; but meeting and overcoming those challenges was
immensely satisfying, and the end result was perhaps a rare
thing a production that was enjoyed in like measure by
audiences, critics, cast and crew.
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