Following their triumphant revival last year of East by Steven Berkoff, Atticist return to the King’s Head – where they’re now an Associate Company – with a new production of David Greig’s 2002 play Outlying Islands. And just as in East, which captured so well the spirit of the East End, here again the setting is not just important to the story but sits right at the heart of the play.
That setting is a remote Scottish island in 1939. As Britain prepares for war, ornithologists Robert (Tom Machell) and John (Jack McMillan) are sent from London by “the Ministry” to spend a month studying and documenting the local birds. The island – “a pagan place” uninhabited for a century – is owned by Kirk (Ken Drury), who accompanies the two men for their stay, along with his niece Ellen (Rose Wardlaw). Not very surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for a romantic entanglement to develop between the three young people, particularly after an unfortunate incident leaves them alone with no Kirk to get in the way. But will they follow their instincts and give in to nature, or will they be held back by the faint but persistent call of civilisation? And why exactly have the two men been sent to the island in the first place…?
I won’t lie; I wasn’t expecting a play about bird-watching to be so tense or so funny – yet Outlying Islands somehow manages to be both at different points, largely because it’s as much a study of people as it is of birds. Robert and John are clearly good friends, but they’re also as different as two men could possibly be. The former, played by Tom Machell, is charming, impulsive and shows very little care for anyone else’s feelings; the casual ease with which he separates a mother from her chick just to see what happens is soon revealed to be only the tip of the iceberg. Jack McMillan’s John is instantly more likeable – but he’s also a worrier, bound by politeness and a strict moral code that often prevents him doing anything at all. The only thing this odd couple seem to share is their love of birds and their admiration for Ellen’s quiet charms.
Rose Wardlaw gives a standout performance as Ellen, whose repressed existence with her bullying uncle hasn’t stopped her seeing Way Out West 37 times and secretly lusting after Stan Laurel. When she unexpectedly gains her freedom – and control of the island – she wastes no time in spreading her wings, but does so without losing any of the innocence and wonder that make her so appealing to both men.
To really engage with the characters and their situation, the audience must feel the isolation of the setting – and we do, thanks to the exceptional design by Anna Lewis. In almost every sense, we’re transported to the old pagan chapel where the characters will set up home, with Christopher Preece’s sound design providing a frequent reminder of the wildness that lies in wait just beyond the rickety wooden door.
It’s quite a long play – Act 1 alone is 90 minutes – and in less competent hands there are some scenes that could feel unnecessarily drawn out. But such is the quality of every aspect of Jessica Lazar’s atmospheric and compelling production that the time flies by, and as the story concludes we’re almost sad to leave the bare little room (particularly now that we know what will become of it once we’re gone). A haunting exploration of human nature with a side helping of political intrigue, this is highly recommended for bird-watchers and people-watchers alike.