Brighton Festival 2023
‘The ones who love us, they’re walking on the path ahead of us, and they’re loitering – just waiting for us to come over the hill.’
The National Theatre of Scotland, established in 2006, has the motto of “theatre without walls”, and aims to make theatre accessible for all. This production, based on the adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson was certainly that.
Originally written for boys and published in the magazine Young Folks in 1886, Kidnapped is set around real 18th-century Scottish events occurring in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. Many of the characters are real people, including Alan Breck Stewart (Breck a gaelic word for the smallpox scars he bore), and the Scottish Highlanders are treated sympathetically.
It tells the tale of reluctant hero Davie Balfour, orphaned at 19, betrayed by his uncle, kidnapped by pirates, and all-at-sea until he meets a roguish Jacobite. Many adventures ensue. There’s love, gambling, disillusionment, a murder, escape, separation and resolution.
Writers Isobel McArthur and Gareth Nicholls have turned this core story into what is billed as a ‘swashbuckling rom-com’, and the production does what it says on the tin. It is colourful, boisterous and infused with humour. But it also retains Stevenson’s poetic sensibility. It has soul.
The piece is introduced and narrated by Frances Stevenson (played with gravitas and charm by Kim Ismay), the author’s widow. She’s a smart one, pushing the action along and peppering the story with wry jokes. Stevenson in real life helped her husband considerably in completing the novel whilst ill, and she brings her particular spin to events.
Indeed there are many ways in which this production squeezes the juice out of Stevenson’s story.
The bromance that exists between Stevenson’s two heroes in the book – naive Davie Balfour (Ryan J MacKay), and the swaggering jacobite Alan Breck Stewart (Malcolm Cumming) – is here more explicitly a gay love affair. The two leads shimmer, from initial embarrassed infatuation to tenderness. The framing device beautifully counterpoints the central relationship with Frances’ description of hers and Louis’ own romance.
Directors’ Isobel McArthur and Michael John McCarthy, along with their designers, have clearly had fun fusing 18th, 20th and 21st century references. Alongside some period costume there are many 80s outfits complete with ra-ra skirts and neon; and a lot of tartan. There’s a casino and a gastropub. And characters are given modern sensibilities: Davie’s waterborne abductors don’t like being called pirates – they are “more nuanced than that”. It would be understandable to think that the pirate leader’s name was a modern reference too, but he’s also called Captain Hoseason in the novel.
This is a truly ensemble piece; the actor musicians are all fabulous. Christina Gordon as ‘Bloody’ Karen was especially funny. Stevenson’s novel is distinctly lacking in female characters, so it was good to see strong cross-casting here. The set pieces are slick, supported by Emily Jane Boyle as movement director and Claire Llewellyn as fight director.
Props are clever and often tongue-in-cheek – children’s toys used for animals; items repurposed from one scene to the next. The staging (designed along with the costumes by Anna Orton) is creative and fun. An early highlight is when the boulder of Davie’s home town turns around to reveal inside a full drum kit (complete with apparently gob-smacked drummer). There are some lovely projections to illustrate Davie’s traveling (designed by Tim Reid). And there’s a gorgeous underwater scene at the top of Act 2, complete with mermaid and fluorescent fish.
Apart from a couple of country numbers, the songs (directed by Isaac Savage) are all 1980s pop classics. Some are especially well chosen and add energy or pathos to the plot. Many are from Scottish bands, which is a nice touch. At times the song choice gave the piece a slightly jukebox-musical quality, and I wondered how it would have been with original music, or a more exclusively Scots soundtrack.
I felt that at its best this was a folksy piece, with a lot of charm and heart, and a couple of the bigger choreographed numbers took me slightly out of that – but that’s of course a matter of preferences.
The action wobbles a little in the plot-heavy second act with perhaps one or two too many twists to keep energy and focus, but we soon gain momentum again for the last few scenes.
The ending – hugely energised by the inspired song choice of ‘In A Big Country’ – is emotional and uplifting, and certainly gives us a more satisfying and clear conclusion to Davie and Alan’s romance than the novel. And the appearance of Robert Louis Stevenson to be reunited with his wife at the very end was delightful.