You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. In all honesty, Neville’s Island is a 30-minute sketch squeezed into 2 hours with an interval. Even a cast of stellar British comic actors can only do so much with a flabby script (I’ve never really rated Tim Firth’s writing). But it is very funny.
Neville’s Island is a simple concept: a team-building exercise gone horribly, horribly wrong. A gaggle of middle-aged men in middle management are taken out of their natural habitat of spreadsheets, conference calls and never being more than 100 metres from a Starbucks, and let loose in the great outdoors. It’s 4 David Brents unleashing their inner Bear Grylls’. But in their enthusiasm to beat the other teams, they misread the instructions, almost drown and wash up on a nearby island, minus a few crucial bits of kit. They are stranded, hungry… and it is raining.
The set is quite incredible. A rocky shoreline surrounded by trees and shrubs. Before the show starts, drizzle pours out of the ceiling and the smell of damp forest drifts out into the audience – the British weather at its most miserable. It’s almost a shame that the rain stops during each scene. The show gets off to a strong start as Gordon (Adrian Edmondson) unceremoniously flails his way out of the water and onto the shale beach with all the elegance of a drowning goat. He’s soon followed by his bedraggled comrades, the so-middle-class-it-hurts Angus (Miles Jupp), sensible Neville (Neil Morrissey) and the shy, troubled Roy (Robert Webb). Their prudish costume changes, complete with clumsy-under-towel-pants-switch had the whole audience in stitches.
There are strong performances from all four – yet this is very much a case of typecasting in the roles that each play best. Adrian Edmondson revels in his role as the vindictive and malevolent Gordon; his tirades are delivered with relentless bile – a thoroughly unlikeable man. Thankfully he’s a contrast to the other 3. Neil Morrissey plays Neville with a great blandness – a man with no real authority, just a very steady temperament. Miles Jupp is effortlessly genteel as gullible Angus, who seems to have brought everything but the kitchen sink, in the highest spec possible, although very little of it is of any use. However tempting it may be to play the character for laughs, he remains beautifully oblivious to the fact that he’s the butt of so many jokes. But the star of the lot is Robert Webb as Roy, a man who is newly back at work after a mental breakdown and though a little odd, there is a real complexity to his vulnerability and you cannot help but warm to him.
This is a play that starts well and then doesn’t know where to go. It loads almost all of its best gags into the first 10 minutes and doesn’t leave much for the rest of the play (apart from 4 men, 1 sausage). The script has been updated with some modern references, but the 90s attitudes contained in the play haven’t. While Gordon may be a completely unsympathetic character, the script occasionally calls for the audience to laugh with him at Roy’s mental health issues – there were some uncomfortable titters and at one point, stunned silence. Thankfully, this was short-lived, but there were still plenty of lulls. At its best, it becomes The Apprentice crossed with The Hunger Games – in cagoules. When it’s funny, it’s hysterical. The comic timing and the dynamic between the 4 is absolutely spot on. Would you expect anything less from a cast like that?
Neville’s Island is playing until Saturday 3rd January 2015 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG. For tickets and information go to http://www.nevillesisland.co.uk/