‘Islander: A New Musical’ was Fisherfolk-tastic.
Audiences will be enchanted by the modern Scottish folktale that is ‘Islander: A New Musical’, a story impressively told through the voices of actors who record and mix their songs using looping technology – live on stage.
Playing at Milton’s trendy, four-month-old Pip Theatre and presented by Passion Productions, ‘Islander’ is a two-hander featuring Ellie Dawson and Paige McKay. These young talents succeed in bringing to life a cast of eclectic townspeople, a stranger from a floating island, and two whales.
Dawson is charismatic as Eilidh, a young girl choosing to stay on her remote Scottish island, keeping an eye on her grandmother (hilariously portrayed by McKay) and harbouring anger at her mother (a more serious, frazzled McKay) for moving to the “big land”. Mysterious events ensue – first a whale calf, then a stranger named Arran, wash up on the shore. Eilidh is faced with many complexities: how to tell myth from reality, why there are two histories of the same place, the cycle of life and death, and what it means to protect your family.
Mist and the sounds of the sea welcomed the audience to theatre in the round, which emphasised the sense we were observing island life. Set and art design by Laurent Milton was simple and effective: the rectangular stage featured corners adorned by stacks of old-timey trunks and a rocking chair. Netting hung from the ceiling and the blue hues in Fiona Black’s lighting design added to the seaweedy, surrounded-by-water feeling. Costume designer Teddy Carter chose a very Scottish-looking jumper and overalls for Eilidh and a blouse and dress for McKay’s cast of characters. Technical manager and sound designer Donovan Wagner should be applauded for the way these elements worked to bring the isles of Scotland to life.
The real technical star was the use of sound itself. Under Connor Clarke’s musical direction, Dawson and McKay’s crystal-clear vocals were exceptionally strong; harmonies well-balanced and not a note out of place. The way these two women managed to sing their parts (filling the space with and without the mics), switch between characters, plus record and layer their own voices (and hand-claps) to provide backing tracks to their melodies was exceptional. The fact they also moved the recording equipment and mic stands in total blackouts during scene transitions must mean there were “Fisherfolk or fairies” helping to guide them.
These blackouts were always well-timed to immediately follow the end of the scenes, but the most effective was when pre-recorded dialogue played during the set change, which helped to fill the space and keep the fast pace of the story.
Kudos goes to director Connor Clarke, assistant director Claire Argente and movement director Zara McCarthy for their use of space and movement choices. Despite the smallish stage, there was never a dull moment as the audience was transported to the town hall, Gran’s house, a long-distance video call, to the shore and through a raging storm on a small boat. Particularly effective were the scenes between Eilidh and her practical-joking grandmother; a highlight was when the two women lay down on the ground alongside each other in a bit of creative blocking. The town hall was another standout scene, as the actors spoke directly to members of the audience as if we were participating in the event, and showed off their versatility and impeccable timing whilst switching between the characters of Kinnen Island.
It’s no surprise that ‘Islander’ was selected for the Made In Scotland showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019 after touring Scotland in 2018. Since then, it enjoyed a 2022 run Off-Broadway at New York City’s Playhouse 46.
Fans of upbeat musicals in the vein of ‘Come from Away’ and those passionate about new ways to use sound in theatre should add ‘Islander: A New Musical’ to their must-see list. Delightful storytelling, captivating leading ladies and an innovative soundscape make for a great night at the theatre in Brisbane.
‘Islander: A New Musical’ performs until Sunday, 27 November 2022 at Pip Theatre. For more information visit Passion Productions’ website.