Image by Derek Drescher
By now, you may well think you’ve had your fill of flamboyant dames and “he’s behind you”s, but Above the Stag‘s annual pantomime is far from your traditional family fare. Brazenly bawdy, this is not the sort of show to bring your kids or your granny along to see. Yet for all that, writers Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper have this year decided to adapt a children’s novel. Though not a common choice for panto, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has proved a treasure trove of action, adventure and larger-than-life characters just ripe for an irreverent retelling.
Treasure Island: The Curse of the Pearl Necklace may have begun as a funny title, but very soon blossomed into a fantastic idea for a show. According to Jon Bradfield, working on Treasure Island has in some ways been easier than sticking to a more traditional fairy story.
“If you think about something like Sleeping Beauty, only three things happen in that story: the lead character has a curse put on her, several years later she pricks her finger and falls asleep, and then 100 years later, the prince comes and wakes her up. That means you have to write the play almost from scratch,” he said. “With Treasure Island, the plot and structure are pretty much all there – it’s just a question of colouring in the story and modernising things.”
That said, transforming a classic novel into a pantomime has not been without its challenges.
“The biggest problem we had was the character of Long John Silver, who is very complex and appears relatively late in the story,” said Bradfield. “In the book, he’s someone you’re never quite sure about, but in a pantomime, you need a strong villain right from page one.”
For all his murderousness, Silver is one of literature’s most well-loved characters, whose enduring appeal lies in his ambiguity. This revision of the character, however, is much more superficial.
“He talks in proper, old-fashioned pirate speak and has that sort of dirty, louche, camp style, like Jack Sparrow, but really, he’s a bit of a poser,” said Bradfield. “We’ve made him into a gastro pub chef, because in the book, he’s the ship’s cook. So at the start, he’s threatening the business run by Jim Hawkins and his mum.”
Long John isn’t the only character to have had a make-over. Naturally, Jim’s mum becomes the Dame, tagging along despite her deep-rooted suspicion of anything foreign. More interestingly, perhaps, Ben Gunn has undergone a significant transformation:
“The captain, who is this old sea dog, has two daughters. One of them was lost at sea as a baby. The other one is horrible and just wants to get her hands on the money which was put into a trust fund for her missing sister,” said Bradfield. “We meet the lost daughter later on Treasure Island, where she’s been marooned.”
There’s also another female character who fills the “Buttons” role as Jim’s best friend. Called Marina, she helps Jim and his mum run their hotel, while dreaming of one day appearing on The Great British Bake Off.
Gender is an issue that Bradfield has consciously tried to address in this production, with particular focus on the hot topic of transgender representation.
“I recently noticed that our panto always gets called an LGBT show, but it never is. It’s always got gay characters, but I’m sure that if I was transgender, I’d probably find the lazy use of that label quite annoying,” Bradfield explained. “It gives the impression that people are better represented than they actually are. This year, though, I thought it would be perfect to change that by putting a transgender merman in the good fairy role. It works really well with that character because obviously a merman is already a kind of transitional figure.”
Above the Stag isn’t the only theatre to be staging Treasure Island this Christmas. Co-incidentally, the story is also the basis for the National Theatre’s Christmas show this year. Though there’s nothing inherently festive about the story, like panto, it makes a great choice for Christmas because of its broad appeal and its ability to bring in big audiences. Though The Curse of the Pearl Necklace is a more niche, adult-only show, Bradfield maintains that, in its own way, it keeps the some of the family vibe of traditional panto.
“If you look at how people are booking tickets, they tend to come in groups of six, eight or even twelve, rather than in couples, so they’re bringing all their mates with them,” he said. “I think especially with gay audiences, a group of friends can often serve as a kind of substitute family.”
Despite some tough, grown-up themes, it is also simply a whole lot of fun, playing on nostalgia, encouraging viewers to shout out and sing along, and guaranteed to bring out the big kid in anyone.
Treasure Island: The Curse of the Pearl Necklace is showing at Above the Stag until Sat 10 January 2015.