How Nick Lane brought Treasure Island to life for Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre

Writer Nick Lane talks about his adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island which has opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Thursday, 12th December 2019, 8:47 am
Updated Thursday, 12th December 2019, 8:48 am
Nick Lane

He reveals how he has brought the story of pirates and buried doubloons to life.

Sum up – without any spoilers – your plot for Treasure Island:

It’s more or less the same tale as the classic RL Stevenson adventure - but more less than more more. So I mean, if you know the book and are familiar with the characters then it’s that, but far more daft.

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“For anyone else... a young Scarborough boy named Jim finds a map to a mysterious island and a whole load of treasure.

“He joins up with the local Squire, Squire Trelawney – in my version a Squiress who’s forced to wear a moustache because of some ridiculous maritime law – a Doctor named Livesey – a bit of an incompetent – and Smollett, a famous sea Captain Smollett – who’s slightly less than his legendary status suggests – to find the treasure.

“Trouble is, in recruiting a crew for the voyage they bring on board a notorious pirate known as Long John Silver, as well as a number of his dastardly pirate allies, and they too have plans for the treasure...

“There’s more I could add but I don’t want to ruin any surprises. Suffice it to say that it is just as silly as it is exciting. “

How well did you know the story before adapting it?

“I’d read it as a kid; I think when I was nine or 10. My Auntie Pat bought me an illustrated version of both Treasure Island and Kidnapped – in one volume – and I loved it.

“I don’t have it any more, which is a shame; maybe I should ask Father Christmas for a replacement.

“Then of course I’d seen the Robert Newton version on a couple of occasions – think that was at Christmas too – and The Muppet Treasure Island when it first came on TV. Oh, and I got the Treasure Island board game - again for Christmas - when I was seven. Does that count?

How did you approach the adaptation of the children’s classic?

“From the side with a cutlass in my hand. Sorry – that was stupid [but funny].

“Probably in the same way I always do for the Stephen Joseph – with respect, but also with a great deal of freedom. What’s great about crafting these stories for the Scarborough audience is that we’ve found something that seems to really work, which is - and this is a term coined by the theatre’s artistic director Paul Robinson - pantoesque.

“When it comes to panto anything goes, which is where the freedom comes in.

“I wanted to give the director, actors, stage management and designers something that was fun to put together; I think if they recognise the material is fun and daft then it’s a fair bet the audience will too.”

What were the challenges of adapting Treasure Island a) as a Christmas show b) for the stage?

“The biggest challenge for me – beyond the idea of adaptation or the Christmas angle – was how to add all the silly stuff.

“It’s such a tight book; there’s barely an ounce of padding within the story at all, so that was my first challenge - again without wanting to give anything away – we had some really daft ideas that we wanted to include, so the first thing was about discovering ways to do that without wandering into narrative cul-de-sacs again and again.

“Once we’d figured that out, we had to kind of repeat the process for the Christmas touches ... although they were somewhat easier – it’s not like we made the ship sail to Santa’s grotto or anything (hmmm... idea for a sequel?).

“As for putting it onstage, and like every year that I’ve done this I can only doff my cap (well; I’ll doff it when i find it) to the designers and the director.

“Last year it was Wonderland, the year before it was travelling through Scrooge’s life, and this year we’re out to sea and then on an island. I have these mad ideas and Helen (Coyston; set and costume designer), Paul (Stear; lighting designer) and not least the wonderful Erin (Carter; director) sift out what’s unworkable and/or rubbish and make the rest far better than I’d imagined. You want to see a ship appear onstage? You just wait.”

Parts of the book are dark - i.e. the Black Spot, Blind Pew - even Long John Silver has his moments - how do you cope with those dark notes?

“What I’ve discovered is, when it comes to stories for kids, there’s nothing you can’t make stupid; scary, serious, satirical or otherwise. As a child I always found the spirits in A Christmas Carol to be pretty sinister – and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come utterly terrifying – but we found a way to make them all ridiculous a couple of years ago, and so it is this year.

“For scary, read silly. And I know the question included the word “how” but I don’t want to tell you. No spoilers here.”

What are your favourite pirate films/books

“Starting with films, I enjoyed the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie but wasn’t a huge fan of any of the others.

“As a kid, and as well as the Robert Newton Treasure Island as mentioned above ... The Crimson Pirate is great fun; good old Burt Lancaster swinging a sword about in the rigging – it’s what they do in pirate films, isn’t it? Probably in their contracts: ‘Must be able to swing sword in rigging.’

“There was one from the seventies with Robert Shaw that I saw when I was about ten - I think it was called Swashbuckler, though looking it up online it was released in some territories as The Scarlet Buccaneer and that rings a bell too. Not sure it stands the test of time based on the trailer I watched on YouTube, but I loved it as a child. Oh, and the Disney film with Peter Ustinov; Blackbeard’s Ghost.

“Books-wise, I don’t think you can go wrong with Treasure Island; it’s a phenomenal read.

“When I was in the infants back in the 1970s some of the first books I remember reading were a series of 12 stories known collectively - and rather simply - as the Pirate Books. These were intended to help kids learn to read and I remember them very fondly. Gregory the Green was my favourite. Most people liked Benjamin the Blue. Nobody liked Roderick the Red. “

What do you like about Christmas?

“There’s not much I don’t like about it, to be honest! Being a fan of food, there’s that aspect; seeing family - my sister and brother-in-law are coming up this year with their two kids and I’m looking forward to that... I love the exchange of gifts – though I’m never that bothered about getting anything personally.

“Trimming the house up; that’s excellent - I assemble our tree each year while watching Die Hard and Die Hard 2 back-to-back. Yes they are Christmas films; how dare you!?

“What else? Oh; this is a thing that hearkens back to my childhood - it’s something I used to do with my mum. I have a great fondness for going out, getting the Christmas Radio Times and looking at all the films that are on. Yes, you’ve seen most of them nowadays on one platform or another but I still love it.”

What will you be doing for Christmas?

“All of the above; probably to excess! I’ll be cooking, I daresay - I love to cook. Seeing friends... nothing out of the ordinary; nothing extravagant. Still brilliant though.”

What else are you working on - and where will it be on?

“There are a few things that may or may not happen (that I don’t want to mention in case I jinx them) so I’ll just tell you the definites:

“A company called Blackeyed Theatre are touring my adaptation of Jane Eyre at the moment; I think it comes close by in the New Year and tours until July... then after that they’ll be taking out my adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – look out for that; it’s great.

“There’s something for a local company about Werewolves for autumn next year (title to be decided), but it’s in a very early stage. Then there’s a project for Hereford Courtyard that I’m in the early stages of researching (it’s about the three choirs festival; a local event over there), but that won’t be on until Summer 2021; and of course next year’s Christmas show for the Stephen Joseph Theatre.”

Treasure Island runs until Saturday December 29.

Tickets: 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com