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Review: Sheila's Island at Liverpool Playhouse ***

They say life imitates art.

In this all-female reboot of Tim Firth’s original Neville’s Island, four middle-aged, middle-income, middle management women do battle with adversity – and each other – on a lump of rock in the Lake District.

And if they’re not actually cold, bedraggled and at each other’s throats, the four-strong cast of Sheila’s Island are certainly facing down adversity on a tour which has been struck more than once by Covid.

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, to lose one cast member may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like the ‘Rona is still rampant.

But the wider creative team are a resourceful, capable and determined bunch, and so along with hard-working understudy Tracy Collier stepping up on opening night here in Liverpool to play the titular Sheila (after doing similar duty in the role of Julie last month), assistant director Emily Jane Kerr has stepped into the breach – spatula and script in hand – to frankly smash it as the fragile Fay from finance.

It's Bonfire Night in the Lakes and the ladies from Pennine Mineral Water Ltd are on a corporate ‘team building’ weekend, only thanks to team leader Sheila’s over complicated cryptic reading of the instructions, they’re lost, soggy and stranded in the middle of a foggy Derwentwater.

Above: Rina Fatania (Julie) and Abigail Thaw (Denise). Top: The cast of Sheila's Island. Photos by Craig Fuller

With just three rescued rucksacks (including one surely previously owned by Mary Poppins), a waterlogged mobile phone and a single saved sausage in the way of provisions between them, the quartet must work out how to get off designer Liz Cooke’s rocky, tree-lined island – past killer pikes and party boats - and back to the safety of the hotel bar before it all turns full Lady of the Flies.

But while Collier’s straightfoward Sheila tries to keep spirits up, the unseen (emotional) baggage the rest of the women have brought with them threatens any hope of either team building or team spirit.

The production, directed by Joanna Read, opens promisingly with the four women crawling up a waterway, wet and whimpering, to be introduced one by one.

Along with ‘sensible’ but inept Sheila we meet cynical and toxic-tongued loner Denise (Abigail Thaw), insecure suburban princess Julie (Rina Fatania) and earnestly religious twitcher Fay, whom it soon transpires has a history of mental illness.

Neville’s Island – written in the early 1990s – explored ideas like toxic masculinity and the sometimes fragile nature of men’s egos, and while women share the same sense of insecurity and certainly aren’t always sugar and spice and all things nice to each other, I’m still not entirely sure the original play’s concepts translate that smoothly here.

While Firth’s script takes a decidedly dark turn at times, it's also peppered with enjoyably keen lines and punctuated with comically catastrophic moments.

But elsewhere the action can feel a bit static. And leaving aside Kerr's sweetly vulnerable, hymn-spouting bird watcher Fay, it feels hard to warm to the characters and their predicaments, and not just Thaw’s eternally disappointed and deeply lonely queen of the stinging put-downs.


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