David Grieg’s play about an uninhabited outer Hebrides island doesn’t know whether it wants to be a political thriller, based on the true story of Gruinard Island which was contaminated with anthrax as during the second world war, or a romantic love triangle between two researchers ;John, a young and innocent man from Edinburgh (Jack McMillan) and Tom Machell as Robert, with an eye for the girls that lends itself to occasional misogyny that masks his general misanthropy sent by ‘The Ministry’ who believe they are there to study the birds native to the island and a local girl Ellen (Rose Wardlaw), who after the death of her parents has been sheltered from civilisation and her love of the cinema from her uncle Kirk (Ken Drury)
One of the issues with the script is that a high point of drama and conflict happens too early on and it struggles to recover despite the excellent performances from all 4 actors. It fails to clarify how deep and meaningful the friendship between Jack and Robert is, why they have undertaken this mission to catalogue the birds on this uninhabited island with minimal access to food and rations. So when Ellen comes between them it is hard for me to muster up the ability to care; it is unlikely these people will see each other again and it means the emotional impact of the ending loses its touch.
The strength in the production is Anna Lewis’ set and costume (her programme notes on what inspired her are very interested) with the only colour coming from David Doyle’s lighting as set and costume are drab monochromes and browns. There is a real sense of isolation and claustrophobia in Jessica Lazar’s direction with the production set in one tiny, damp chapel or on the clifftops where characters go and reveal the thoughts they have and hope they are alone.
I particularly enjoyed Jack McMillan as John, a man who chooses reading over films and struggles to fit in with film and life loving Robert and Ellen. Machell as Robert brings a real sinister edge to a character you feel will be comic relief, he chooses birds over animals every time and his failure to understand why this island and its wildlife has been chosen leads to extreme action towards Drury’s Kirk, a man with little love for the island who is looking to make a quick buck from ‘The Ministry’. Rose Wardell as naïve Ellen brings an understanding to being young and lonely, she is keen to escape the island and always has been putting her hopes into these strangers to take her away. It is a strong production of a play that seems unsure which story it wants to tell.
Outlying Islands is on until 2 February https://system.spektrix.com/kingsheadtheatre/website/eventdetails.aspx?WebEventId=outlyingislands