If you’ve ever worked in an office, it’s likely you’ve endured at least one day full of team building exercises, breakout sessions, and catered luncheons. Yet, it’s less likely you wound up stranded on a desert island with your colleague from accounting and no clue how to survive the elements. That is unless you’re a character in a play written by Tim Firth. For the men of Neville’s Island things go from bad to worse to downright hysterical in this 1990’s, British comedy currently running at Olney Theater Center.
Described as “The Office” meets “Survivor,” Neville’s Island is the story of four mid-level managers who find themselves shipwrecked on an island in England’s Lake District. With few applicable skills between them, the men struggle to endure each other and the not-so-great outdoors. From the very first scene the men are proverbial fish out of water, even slapping their naked torsos to keep warm while changing into dry clothes. “This is what the Romans did when they first came to Britain,” Neville, the group’s appointed “captain” reveals. Suffice it to say, the foursome mostly flounders (pun intended), a la the Three Stooges plus one. In other words, it’s all very slapstick, but not without depth; Firth’s is a substantive work, a funny, yet timely commentary on class, faith, and identity.
The cast of Neville’s Island is an undoubtedly seasoned troupe, seemingly up for anything. (After all, they did strip down to their unmentionables a mere ten minutes into the show). Collectively, their comedic timing is spot-on as is their emotional range and mastery of their British accents thanks to Dialect Consultant, Lynn Watson.
As Neville, Michael Russotto is the play’s, quintessential middle management type. Neither meek nor particularly assertive, he rally’s the team, often serving as resident sympathizer and optimist. Russotto’s depiction is kind and congenial. He has a quiet, controlled and reasonable way about him; a welcome contrast to the play’s more demonstrative characters.
Bolton Marsh delivers an exciting and slow-building performance as Roy, a newly devout Christian and bird-lover whose prior nervous breakdown leaves his colleagues walking on eggshells. Whether merely eccentric or emotionally unhinged, Marsh juggles Roy’s idiosyncrasies with both humanity and humor. Perched high among the trees, his lofty and cerebral monologues earn laughs, but also add spiritual perspective and heart to this over the top comedy.
For the men of ‘Neville’s Island’ things go from bad to worse to downright hysterical…
As Angus, Todd Scofield is perfect as Neville Island’s gentle giant. From cluelessness, to hope, to despair, to rage, Scofield scales the emotional ladder with ease. Armed with a backpack overloaded with camping essentials and random sundries, Angus summons his inner leader when it matters most. Though the character is not obvious management material and often the last to get the joke, Scofield’s delivery showcases Angus’ strengths – honesty, integrity, innate goodness – far more than his shortcomings.
Michael Glenn is quite the force as Gordon, the team’s official curmudgeon. The only manager who is actually decisive, Gordon spends the duration of the play injecting his two-cents wherever possible and delivering sarcastic jokes. Luckily, Glenn’s timing is flawless and his clever one-liners always land. However, Gordon is more than just the resident grouch. Though physically the shortest cast member, Glenn is a believable bully too. His character yells the loudest and fights the hardest and like most bullies, bears a wealth of emotional scars. Therefore, Gordon is not without layers and through his conflicts, (with Angus especially), Michael Glenn allows us a glimpse of every single one.
The castaways fumble about in a beautifully designed space thanks to Scenic Designer Russell Parkman. Three of the four men even make their entrances via a water-filled trench built around the stage to dramatic and hilarious effect. The “island” is a muted assortment of grey boulders which serve as makeshift furniture and platforms on which the men complain, trade quips, and pontificate. Placed upstage, leafless trees make for a fittingly desolate locale. The continuous fog helps too. Lighting Designer Joel Moritz both balances this greyish design and punctuates the play’s more emotional moments with bursts of soft, rich color.
In addition, Costume Designer, Martha Hally, dons the foursome in appropriately ordinary attire. Modest corduroy pants, worn jeans, work boots, and flannel pull-overs make perfect sense for a group of middle-aged men who’ve packed for a casual weekend retreat. Oddly much of the costuming is actually what makes these characters appear even more amusing and absurd. It’s hard not to laugh as Gordon, who loses his backpack, is forced to wear jeans and a suit two sizes too big. And Roy is quite a sight, dressed in next to nothing by Act Two.
Sound designer Will Pickens allows for upbeat, energetic transitions between scenes with fun guitar riffs. His “Bonfire Night” fireworks and passing party boat effects are also a success.
Finally, Casey Kaleba does an outstanding job as Fight Coordinator. If those scenes had not appeared believable, neither would much of the conflict between Gordon and, well, everyone else. Thankfully, the physical stunts work. I certainly winced at the indelicate treatment of Gordon’s injured arm.
Director Jason King Jones delivers an incredibly fun farce that will not only make you laugh out loud, but reexamine your personal constitution. Through the hyperbole and the screwball antics, Neville’s Island is ultimately about overcoming the trials and tribulations that will inevitability find us all. As playwright Tim Firth states, “This may look like a teambuilding exercise, but it is really survival of the fittest.” Tis life!
Running Time: 3 Hours with a 15 Min Intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 15 and up. Nudity, adult themes.
Neville’s Island plays at Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD, through April 28. For tickets click here.