Four women find themselves isolated, stuck on a small island during a company team-building weekend. It’s cold, it’s foggy, and their food supplies have sunk to the bottom of Derwentwater.
You almost wouldn’t mind being stuck on an island with them for real
The show opens with the group of women arriving on stage one-by-one, genuinely soaked through. This level of commitment might not be so fun for the drenched cast, but it quickly sets the scene. Billed as The Office meets The Lord of the Flies meets Miranda, Sheila's Island never quite captures the real life nuance of The Office, or the fourth-wall breaking intimacy of Miranda, but the script is certainly packed full of jokes. From the moment the women slowly realise that perhaps the clues weren’t quite as cryptic as Sheila had thought, right the way through to Julie’s overenthusiastically packed backpack, there are plenty of laughs. Each of the cast brings something different to the mix: Sara Crowe’s (mostly) placid Fay brings balance to Rina Fatania as Julie, who adds a frenzied energy to the group. Judy Flynn is very believable as the slightly bossy, strung out middle manager and mum Sheila, who is often at loggerheads with sarcastic Denise, played by Abigail Thaw.
If Sheila’s Island sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because it is an adaptation of writer Tim Firth’s earlier play: Neville’s Island. What was once about four men, is now rewritten as four women. The switch is successful: if you were unaware of its origins, you wouldn’t notice the gender swap. Director Joanna Read keeps her cast busy, such as when they’re changing into dry clothes on stage, despite the constraints of the story and the space. This means that there’s enough action to stop it becoming staid, and the torrent of jokes ensure a snappy pace.
Although clearly inspired by William Golding’s novel, Sheila’s Island never gets quite as dark as The Lord of the Flies; unfortunately this means that the final denouement is underwhelming. All of the ladies - although understandably often grouchy, and sometimes unnecessarily mean - come across as likeable. When there is a final confrontation between Denise and Sheila, the aggressiveness between the two doesn’t feel earned. As a result, the ending feels abrupt as we’re denied further reconciliation or conclusion.
The show’s treatment of suicide also felt problematic. The group’s dismissiveness of their colleague’s apparent mental health woes felt a step too far from their characters’ previous behaviour, even if they had been through a tough couple of days. If the purpose of this tonal switch was to inspire poignant reflection, then this about-turn may have been justified. However, even though the script tried to keep up the comedic atmosphere, the seriousness of the topic sidestepped the audience, turning what had been guffaws into uneasy chuckles.
Despite this misstep, the cast are very enjoyable company. You almost wouldn’t mind being stuck on an island with them for real. Well, almost.