Take four ‘business executives from the Salford Pennine Water Company’, strand them on an island in the middle of Derwent Water for 48 hours, and watch the sparks fly. This is the premise of Sheila’s Island, as bully Denise (Abigail Thaw), fragile Fay (Sara Crowe), organised Julie (Rina Fatania, played by understudy Tracy Collier in this performance) and hapless leader Sheila (Judy Flynn) find themselves boat-wrecked during a team-building exercise in the Lake District.
The parallels with Lord of the Flies are hardly subtle, but the focus on middle age rather than adolescence allows writer Tim Firth (rewriting his own all-male Neville’s Island for four female characters) to examine a rather different set of themes. Office power dynamics, caring for elderly relatives and mental health are all explored in some depth.
The key to this is Sara Crowe’s Fay, a woman recovering from some past tragedy. Through Fay, Firth tackles his most sensitive themes and Crowe’s fragile, childish voice and precise mannerisms perfectly transmit the sense of someone struggling to keep everything together.
If the other characters are a little archetypical, then this at least makes them and their relationships easy to relate to. Anyone who has worked in an office will recognise domineering Denise’s treatment of her milder mannered colleagues and will cheer at her comeuppance, even if it ultimately feels unsatisfyingly slight after two hours of her near-constant abuse.
Despite Denise’s unpleasant behaviour and the underlying serious themes, the play is consistently funny. Whether through sharp one-liners or well-delivered physical comedy (only slightly hampered by the uneven stage set), the laughs keep coming, even if the energy starts to flag a little by the end.
Much like being in an office, the human nature on show during Sheila’s Island is by turns funny and despairful. The pressure-cooker setting of the island dials these emotions up to 11, making for some genuinely moving moments among the laughter. Anyone who has worked in an office or been on a teambuilding away day will find much to empathise with here.
- Written by: Tim Firth
- Directed by: Joanna Read
- Photographer: Craig Fuller
- Cast: Sara Crowe, Rina Fatania, Judy Flynn, Abigail Thaw
- King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
- Until: 5 March at King’s Theatre; touring at various UK theatres until the end of April
- Running time: Two hours plus an interval