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Tim Firth on putting women centre stage in Sheila's Island

Thirty years ago, a young Tim Firth penned his first play Neville’s Island - a comedy about four middle-aged men on a team building exercise who got stranded on an island in the Lake District.

The play, a sort-of Lord of the Flies populated by weary office drones, was commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn and kickstarted a career which has seen the Frodsham-born Firth pen a host of shows for stage and screen – big (Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots) and small (All Quiet on the Preston Front).

Neville’s Island has been revived many times over the years. A production at the Playhouse in 2003 starred Simon O’Brien and Drew Schofield.

Now it’s returning to Liverpool in April, but this time it’s not men but women who find themselves up the creek without a paddle in what has become Sheila’s Island.

Firth explains: “It’s one of those great ideas that I didn’t have myself. It’s a bit like when I wrote the Flint Street Nativity as a musical, it was because the Everyman and Playhouse came to me and said have you ever thought of turning your play into a musical? Or into a stage musical?

“And I thought ‘damn, why didn’t I have that idea?!’

“Before lockdown Jo Reid, who had directed the Scottish production of The Flint Street Nativity up in Edinburgh, said ‘look, I’m taking over the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford and I’ve always thought there should be an all-female version of Neville’s Island.’

She then basically said, ‘what do you think?’ And I said I’ll take a look. Maybe.”

Firth admits that when he wrote the play as a 20-something year old he would probably have founded in inconceivable to change the characters’ sex but keep the original storyline.

Above: Sheila's Island. Top: Judy Flynn and Sara Crowe. Photos by Craig Fuller.

“At the time I would have thought that was an all-male play. It was about so many things to do with bullying and frailty and finding of handholds in the dark and crises points in your life and other people exploiting those and then you finding strength,” he says.

“But actually, after 30 years of life, I thought a) that’s wrong b) it’s patronising and c) again, it’s found its time because when I was 28 the idea of an all-female boardroom would probably not have existed, and now that it is you think, does the space bring its own problems?

“I looked at it again and thought – my God! I was so shocked with how little I had to change. And the changes I have done are trims and improvements I hope to the play after 30 years.”

Sheila’s Island – being billed as ‘The Office meets Lord of the Flies meets Miranda’ – stars Judy Flynn as the titular Sheila, along with Sara Crowe, Abigail Thaw and Rina Fatania who some Everyman and Playhouse audience will remember from Kneehigh’s delicious Dead Dog in a Suitcase.

Meanwhile Firth has a second – completely – new show set to open just down the road in Chester in May. Now is Good, being premiered at Storyhouse, is a musical comedy about how to help your children, how to fight loneliness…and where to hide your biscuits.

Sheila’s Island is at the Liverpool Playhouse from April 4-9. Tickets HERE


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