David Greig’s Outlying Islands was first performed at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002, when it then transferred to the Royal Court in an Olivier Award nominated run. While it was revived in Edinburgh a few years ago, this run at The King’s Head from associate company, Atticist is this first London revival since the original.
Directed by Jessica Lazaar, Outlying Islands is based in part on the real-life adventures of two ornithologists exploring a remote Scottish island. In this fictional version, it’s 1939 and the pair of university graduates have been sent by ‘The Ministry’ to study the allusive fork-tail. But war is coming and the real reason they are there is revealed to them by the island’s owner; the Government wants to test Anthrax on this forgotten rock, forty miles out to sea.
The owner and his niece, Ellen have accompanied Robert and John on their month-long expedition. The island is usually only inhabited by sheep, birds and wildlife, so there’s little in the way of amenities. Completely cut off from civilisation, Robert embraces the freedoms that their new home affords, “we can do anything” he exclaims in wide-eyed wonder. While more cautious in approach, John also sees opportunities, and for both characters we see how this will push them to their limits.
As the only female on the island, played wonderfully by Rose Wardlaw, Ellen wields considerable power over her new companions. Shy and reclusive at first, events on the first night offer her a new kind of freedom too. The sexual tension simmers slowly over the first act, finally coming to the boil in the second, in a fantastically stirring and emotional scene.
I was lucky enough to spend two years living in the Outer Hebrides, albeit in more modern times, and on a far more densely populated island. Still, the feeling of complete isolation combined with a sense of release is one that I’ve always struggled to describe. David Greig’s writing and Anna Lewis’s design capture all of these feelings perfectly, while Christopher Preece’s sound design evokes the glory of the natural surroundings and the crushing despair of remoteness.
The relationship between John and Robert is beautifully developed. Clearly friends for a long time, they accept easily that they will be rivals for Ellen’s affections. They also understand each other completely, exploiting their differences and taking advantage of their similarities to be able to get the most from their friendship. Tom Machell gives a fascinating performance as Robert, exhibiting childlike exuberance in one instance, to dark selfishness in the next. Jack McMillan as John is the glue that holds everything together, consistently strong and able to convey so much in physical movements alone.
Outlying Islands has some wonderful moments of comedy, often slapstick in a nod to Ellen’s favourite movie characters, but this play is at its best when it’s exploring the relationship between each of the characters. Each of them knows that even in their isolation, they are experiencing freedoms that are being threatened elsewhere around the world, how they react and then interact with each other is wonderful to watch. A truly captivating production, authentically staged and beautifully performed.