Review: Islander at Southwark Playhouse

Sound is a storyteller. For as long as there have been stories, they have been songs. From the sea shanty to the folk ballad, music has always been one of the most effective and evocative ways to tell a tale. And what better tale is there, than that of a people’s folk history, rich with myth and magic, and linking both past to present in stirring style?  

Kirsty Findlay as Arran in Islander. Photo courtesy of Jassy Earl (2019).

Kirsty Findlay as Arran in Islander. Photo courtesy of Jassy Earl (2019).

Islander is a marvel of expressive yet minimalist theatre. Blending both the traditional and the modern, the musical combines contemporary Scottish folk and vocal loops to create an intimate yet otherworldly story of epic adventure and gleeful mundanity.

Eilidh (Bethany Tennick) is a young woman who dreams of leaving her island. Such a life is both isolating and provincial for Eilidh, where the big story of the day is one man’s missing gnome. She longs for excitement and friendship, and both come in the form of Arran (Kirsty Findlay). A mysterious newcomer, Arran’s arrival (and that of a whale) leads Eilidh to wonder over the existence of finfolk, the shape-shifters of Orkney folklore. 

Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay in Islander. Photo courtesy of Ali Wright (2019).

Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay in Islander. Photo courtesy of Ali Wright (2019).

The two performers are fantastic, singing and stamping their way through numbers both lyrical and otherworldly. Two-part harmonies and looping vocal passages create a mesmerising atmosphere, and help take you into the strange and poetic world of the show. Finn Anderson’s music is almost a character in itself, with a recurring motif that will be running through your head well after you have left the theatre.

I was also impressed with Amy Draper’s direction, which made great use of an intimate setting and practically zero props. Islander shows what can be achieved through music and sound, as some of its most vivid moments are created with just a sampler, two microphones, and two very talented performers. 

If there is a criticism to be made of Islander, it is that the show lacks an emotional weight. While tragedy is not always an appropriate mode, there is certainly melancholy to the story, and I felt this could have been explored a little more. Some loss and sadness can be a good thing, and both were missing from a musical that was very enjoyable, but not entirely satisfying on an emotional level.

Islander is well worth checking out. It is a wondrous story of myth and lore, inventively told through music, sound, and performance. A delight to get lost in, like the washing waves of an endless ocean. 

Islander is showing at Southwark Playhouse until 26 October. Tickets available on the website.