Review: Sheila’s Island, Rondo Theatre, Bath: Tim Firth’s play Sheila’s Island has been widely criticised for being shallow, cliched, patronising and peopled by two dimensional characters, with critics also taking aim at its portrayal of women caught in a crisis. And then there’s the digs at his coverage of Christianity and mental health. However if you are new to the play and attended Playing Up’s production of the comedy drama much of this criticism might pass you by. What we have is a very British satire of the incompetence of middle management in large corporates who are unable to cope with a crisis outside of their air-conditioned open plan offices.

The fact they are four women of a certain age is perhaps besides the point. If you take the trouble to read the reviews of Neville’s Island (the original forerunner) that featured four middle-aged middle-management chaps in the identical setting the same criticisms are absent. Apparently it’s OK send up four incompetent blokes. That said the fact Sheila’s Island has been so widely staged from the humblest village hall to professional theatres is testament to Firth’s popularity as a writer (Kinky Boots, Calendar Girls) and theatre’s demand for a contemporary comedy with an all-female cast.

Directed by Darian Nelson, Bath-based Playing Up’s production at the Rondo gets off to a damp start as the four members of a team building exercise struggle ashore on an island in the Lake District after their boat sank. The resulting action concerns their comically complete failure to raise the alarm and alert rescuers or to show any commonsense – which means we laugh at them as much as with them as we secretly wonder how we would cope. No phone signal, no food (bar one sausage) and no tent to spend the night in.

Led by Sheila, the team captain and unfailingly cheerful leader, played by a wonderfully doomed but positive Anne Hipperson, the quartet blunder from one mistake to another before being consumed with fear as darkness descends.

Protagonist Denise (a frighteningly aggressive and bullying Caroline Murray) sets all on edge as she chastises everyone but herself for their predicament – and in particular rounds on mentally fragile Fay.

A keen ornithologist and devout Christian (having found God after a personal tragedy) Fay is given a slightly mystic and introverted tone by Diluki O’Beirne (with her hauntingly normal voice) as she grapples with her inner demons and her binoculars.

 Leah Brine is also excellent value as the super organised Julie – but in a way that is totally impractical on a fog bound island. The production’s strength is the acting of the foursome as they flesh out their characters with their own hinted at backstories – the main one being Julie’s domestic life with unreliable husband Angus who is entrusted with their rescue.

With a memorable and comically ridiculous sausage scene, some spectacular bust-ups, quick fire dialogue and the humour of four ill-prepared executives unable to make sensible decisions the humour comes from the characters’ woeful incompetence. A thoughtful and pacey production by Playing Up – and a triumph for the crew led by Darian Nelson in a show that starts slowly but builds to a stunning and unexpected finale.

The Rondo’s building insurers will be glad to know the set didn’t include a replica of Lake Windemere flooding the auditorium but the set with its rocks and vegetation was adequate to suggest the dank island engulfed in fog – and the sound of lapping water and diffused lighting completed the scene.

A very British comedy set in very British weather.

Harry Mottram

The play runs from Wednesday 1st November to Saturday 4th November, 2023, nightly at 7.30pm.

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