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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Gary Garr/ Ph: Johan Persson

The runaway success of the National’s last family show, War Horse, now packing in audiences in the West End, was always going to be hard to follow. It makes this watery staging of Terry Pratchett’s novel for young people doubly disappointing. Adapted by Mark Ravenhill and directed by Melly Still, Nation is garbled and not engaging. Even as spectacle, it induces only fleeting and occasional wonderment.
It’s a mishmash of colonial, racial and sexual politics, religious debate and rites-of-passage tale. Mau (Gary Garr), a young South Pacific islander, is canoeing back to his home after completing a ceremonial quest that marks his transition into manhood, when a devastating tsunami strikes. It decimates his people and washes up on his shores refugees from neighbouring communities and a shipwrecked Victorian English girl, Daphne (Emily Taaffe). Together, under the quizzical eye and obscenity-squawking beak of Milton, the ship’s parrot, they begin to forge a brave new world.
In the struggle for survival and the building of their nation, Mau and Daphne must undergo many tests of their courage and ingenuity. Daphne, using only a sailor’s manual salvaged from the ship, tries her hand at amputation and at delivering a baby. When the mother is unable to breastfeed, she and Mau suck milk from the teats of an angry wild pig to keep the ailing infant alive. As chief of the new society, Mau, who was born into a patriarchy with its roots in ancient civilisation, lays the foundation of a moral code in which are melded science and faith, time-honoured tradition and youthful enterprise, and masculine and feminine.
Allusions to The Tempest, The Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe and Paradise Lost, as well as themes of imperialism and environmental catastrophe, gasp for air amid the episodic plot. It’s difficult to care about any of it when there’s so little narrative focus, and characterisation drowns in the eddying flow of dislocated incident. Still and Mark Friend’s set design, a slice of gold-and-brown globe with towering palm trees, is exquisitely lit in shades of sky, sea and sunshine by Paul Anderson. Yvonne Stone’s puppets – the sharp-tusked sow, pecking carrion fowl, silvery dolphins – supply a sprinkling of magic. And when performers move in underwater slow motion against the video imagery by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, with its storm-tossed grey waves or vivid blue ripples and streams of bright bubbles, it’s captivatingly lovely. But the tsunami itself involves a miniature boat and the rather unexciting flapping of a plastic sheet; the recurring grass-skirted tribal dances are untidy, and Adrian Sutton’s music has a saccharine artificiality.
Given the shortcomings of the writing, it’s unsurprising that the acting is on the whole undistinguished; as Milton the parrot, Jason Thorpe is forced to attempt to make such ejaculations as “knickers!” and “boobies” funny; he doesn’t succeed. Indeed, there is little laughter, or joy, or intensity of any kind, to be found in a production cut loose from its emotional and narrative moorings and hopelessly adrift.


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