Sheila’s Island, written by Tim Firth and directed by Joanna Read, tells the story of four middle management women on a company team-building holiday, which goes horrifically wrong.
Sheila, the overachieving team leader, reads far too much into the clue they have been given for the team-building exercise and misunderstands what constitutes ‘upstream’. Consequently, she lands the team on an abandoned island in the lake district. Surrounded in fog, they must confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and their three co-workers. The four women are Sheila, Denise, Fay, and Julie, played respectively by Judy Flynn, Abigail Thaw, Sara Crowe and on opening night, Julie was played by understudy Tracy Collier, standing in for Rina Fatania.
Each character is a riddle in her own right. It is easy, almost instinctive, to write off Sheila, Julie and Fay as ditsy and frankly useless compared to the witty, cunning and brutally honest Abigail. But as the character’s wits unravel, so does her inhibitions, and the audience sees Abigail for what she is—more brutal than honest. Sheila’s Island dissects and examines human nature, presenting to the audience the most horrible as well as the most admirable parts in each of us. The subject matter touches on religion, love, loss and meaning while also containing the sentence “that’s what happens when you’re a sausage”.
Sheila desperately tries throughout the play to keep some semblance of civility within the group, but this proves impossible. Sweet, quiet, and precious Fay never ceases to amaze with her patience and resolve in the face of cruelty. Well-meaning Julie suffers the same fate as Sheila and Julie. Carefully and subtly, the characters trust each other and the audience with their vulnerabilities, which are cruelly used against them by Abigail, the great equalizer.
What, in the beginning, seems to be Abigail’s cutting and banterous fun, mixed with hunger, exhaustion and fear, becomes sadism as Abigail consistently goes too far. Sheila earns her place in the play’s title by putting Abigail in her place for being a bully who uses her wit as a weapon to cut others down to her level.
Watching Sheila’s Island felt like spending 2 hours with a group of flawed and increasingly sleep-deprived friends. With the amount of human truth packed into the plot, it should not have been as funny as it was. Each actress’ understated performance was formidable and effortless. The actresses were their characters, and the characters were inescapably human, even when we did not want them to be.
Sheila’s Island runs at the King’s Theatre from 1st to 5th March 2022
Image: Courtesy of Craig Fuller via Capital Theatres