Outlying Islands, King’s Head Theatre – Review

In the collective consciousness, islands have always been a place apart from mainstream civilisation. Not privy to the same customs as the mainland, the inhabitants could live in seclusion without interference. Centuries ago, islands were often regarded as holy places – retreats to lead monastic lives. The converse was also true, where followers of ‘the old ways’ could lead their lives and ‘be themselves’… Written by David Greig and directed by Jessica Lazar, Outlying Islands explores the dichotomy between civilisation and nature, celibacy and longing, captivity and freedom…

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Clockwise: Jack McMillan, Tom Machell, Rose Wardlaw, Ken Drury / © Timothy Kelly

Set in the late 1930s, the play takes place on a remote Scottish island in the North Sea. Arriving with Kirk (Ken Drury) – the owner of the island, students John (Jack McMillan) and Robert (Tom Machell) stay at what was once a former ‘chapel’ to study the population of a rare bird. From the off, we see that the students are of different temperaments. John is thoughtful, generally helpful and dependable. Robert, meanwhile, is impulsive, prone to walking off at a moment’s notice and unencumbered by guilt. He also has a way of rationalising everything he says and does, which to those who don’t know him can be perplexing or vexing.

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Kirk has his own quirks and while he thinks of himself as a God-fearing man, he talks an awful lot about money and the ‘compensation’ that ‘the Ministry’ will pay him for his ‘inconvenience’. Much like the Scottish father in Aimée Stuart’s Jeannie, Kirk thinks cinemas are ‘the devil’s plaything’ – leading people into temptation and something that he needs to protect his niece Ellen (Rose Wardlaw) from. While she is a quiet and dutiful young woman, Ellen very much has thoughts of her own…

From the beginning, the otherworldly mood of the island is felt, taking John in particularly out of his comfort zone. The paranoia regarding their true purpose there also leads to speculation about forthcoming events and questions of their own moral culpability. Still, their apprehension is short-lived, as being beyond the ‘apron strings’ of society brings with it a realisation of freedom and a world of possibilties.

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While Kirk doesn’t appear from beginning to end, the importance of his absence can not be overstated. Representing so many aspects of institutional society, his ‘departure’ is nothing short of iconoclastic, leading to a tabula rasa.

Bar Kirk, all the characters find a greater awareness of who they are and what they want. That said, not everyone is comfortable with their epiphany, leading to very different reactions…

By the play’s conclusion, the natural ‘growth’ of the respective characters can be keenly felt – changes that arguably wouldn’t have taken place without the catalyst of the island…

© Michael Davis 2019

Outlying Islands runs at King’s Head Theatre until 2nd February.

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