REVIEW: Islander (Southwark Playhouse)

Having acquired three tickets to a children’s film premiere on Saturday, Mrs Mummy marched the munchkins off to Leicester Square, leaving Mummy to her own devices. With a spare Saturday afternoon at her disposal, Mummy did what any self-respecting musical theatre fan would do and headed straight to the Southwark Playhouse. Fast becoming Mummy’s favourite theatre, it is currently home to two exciting (and very different!) new musicals. This time, Mummy was here to catch Islander, fresh from its award-winning run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (but do feel free to read her thoughts on Preludes while you’re here).

Islander tells the tale of a remote Scottish island, its population fast depleting. Many residents have already made their way to the mainland, while the rest wrestle with whether to vote for a proposal to leave en masse. Just one child remains, having made the decision to stay on the island with her Gran instead of moving to the mainland with her Mum. After a tragic encounter with a beached whale, Eilidh meets a mysterious stranger who washes up on the beach in its wake. Thrown together by chance, Eilidh and new friend Arran embark on an adventure that will determine the future of both of their worlds.

At first glance, Islander is a deceptively simple piece. A two-piece cast, standing on a starkly bare stage, telling a story through song. But it has layers. Not only do Bethany Tennick (Eilidh) and Kirsty Findlay (Arran) play the protagonists, but between them they also bring to life all the other inhabitants of the island of Kirrin. Dwindling though those numbers may be, it still takes some magic for two actors to convey the chaos of a packed town hall meeting. And they don’t just play the people. Tennick and Findlay supply every sound in the show. There is no band. No backing track. Just two people, two microphones and some audio equipment that Mummy has just learned is called a loop pedal. By live-recording and layering their voices, they create a rich tapestry of music that brings their story to life. (See – actual layers!)

Finn Anderson’s stunning score is performed beautifully by Tennick and Findlay, who both have crystal clear voices. Despite the understated staging, there is nothing simple about the task they undertake. Everything they do is carefully choreographed, with a mind-boggling number of buttons to hit and pedals to press in addition to the constant character-changing. And they don’t miss a beat, pulling off Amy Draper’s ingenious concept and direction seamlessly.

The story itself is also layered, blending a contemporary tale with Scottish folklore. As the tale unfolds, the audience learns of another island, the floating land of Setasea. Inhabited by mythical ‘fin folk’, Setasea is also struggling to preserve a traditional way of life in the face of threats to its whale population. Cast away from Setasea for a grave mistake, Arran finds herself washed up in Eilidh’s world. And as each learns about the place the other calls home, they help each other find where they belong.

At the heart of Islander is a story about community, although there is an underlying environmental message that gets slightly lost at sea. There is also humour amidst the more serious moments, particularly in Findlay’s portrayal of Eilidh’s mischievous Gran and a recurring plea for a lost garden gnome. The theme of old versus new is brought out brilliantly by the use of the loop pedal to turn an acapella duo into an accompanied ensemble, perfectly demonstrating how technology can be harnessed to help build communities. Talking of two young people, Mummy was pleased to see that the book writer Stewart Melton was also responsible for the beautiful Seesaw at the Unicorn Theatre. Given the themes of this piece, it felt appropriate that Mummy had already encountered the writer in his capacity as creator of a children’s show. After all, just as the young people of Kirrin and Setasea are key to their islands’ survival, today’s young audiences are the adult audiences of the future.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).

Islander is playing at the Southwark Playhouse from 2 to 26 October 2019.