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King’s Head Theatre, London
FIRST given an outing in Edinburgh in 2002 and only staged once in London since then, David Greig's Outlying Islands follows the fortunes of Robert and John, two young ornithologists fresh from university who, in 1939, land on a tiny uninhabited Scottish island for a cold summer studying the habits of the local birdlife.
They're accompanied by the island’s puritanical absentee leaseholder Kirk and his somewhat cowed but quietly smouldering adopted niece Ellen, sent to keep an eye on them until the boat returns in four week’s time.
Dramatic developments overtake the party almost as soon as they step onto the rock, setting the three youngsters free from any semblance of authority and pitching them into a dreamlike whirlpool of emotions as they consider where their new-found autonomy away from the prying eyes of society might take them.
Director Jessica Lazar and set designer Anna Lewis make the most of the tight space at the King’s Head, simultaneously allowing the audience to envisage the soaring surrounds of craggy cliffs while enclosing the action in the damp, smoky confines of an abandoned chapel buffeted by Christopher Preece’s soundscape of strong winds, waves crashing, rain falling and birds crying.
Tom Machell plays Robert as an almost psychopathic antagonist, experimenting with people in the same cold way that he observes the island’s birds and yet with a detachment somehow hitched to wild-eyed, impulsive passion.
John (Jack McMillan), constantly pulling at his tank top, is altogether more conventional and circumspect. Temperamentally unsuited to the unfurling hotbloodedness, he’s disconcertingly unloosened by his growing fixation with Ellen.
Ellen it is who steps from the shadows to become the dominating force as she leads the boys into new territory and in the role Rose Wardlaw handles the transition beautifully, providing early hints of hidden and turbulent emotions before gradually revealing herself — almost as much to her own delighted shock as to everyone else’s — as a young woman desperate for new experiences and horizons.
In the process, she forces the audience to consider the opposing merits of rationality and irrationality, morality and immorality, conventionality and free thinking and, beneath all that, the more loose-limbed, magical ways of paganism compared with the organised strictures of modern religion.
Greig’s play charts a wonderfully provocative territory in which to ponder all these things and the actors of the Atticist company populate it with elan.
Runs until February 2, box office: kingsheadtheatre.com.
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