The Scottish playwright’s island, imaginatively designed in the King’s Head Theatre by Anna Lewis, is an intriguing blank canvas for exploring social constructs – ★★★★

Avid birdwatchers may be left somewhat disappointed by this new production of Outlying Islands. With the exception of a baby chick in a wooden box, there are no birds on stage – sorry. Instead, what begins as a study of the animals by two ornithologists, becomes an intelligent – and perhaps more interesting – observation of humanity itself.

Man looking inside a wooden box on the table, with a woman looking at him holding a lamp.
Tom Machell (Robert) and Rose Wardlaw (Ellen). Photo: Clive Bard.

First performed at the Royal Court in 2002, Outlying Islands follows the two experts (played by Jack McMillan and Tom Machell) as they’re sent to a Scottish island – inhabited by a Mr Kirk (Ken Drury) and his niece (Ellen Rose Wardlaw) – by ‘the Ministry’ on the evening before the start of World War II.

Yet the focus soon shifts away from the duo’s initial project as they realise that they are far from wider civilisation and the societal expectations (around subjects such as dignity and human relationships) which come with it. It’s the character development that comes as cultural norms collapse which makes Grieg’s script all the more fascinating.

Awkward and timid John (McMillan) soon becomes confident and extroverted, while Ellen (Wardlaw) finds a new sense of freedom. It’s two character progressions navigated with precision and excellence from the pair of performers.

While fellow ornithologist Robert has his fair share of changes, it’s here where Grieg’s writing falters. A typical, Sherlock Holmes-like observer, he’s a character responsible for most of the play’s exposition. At times it’s welcomed and poetic, other times it is flowery and unnecessary. He’s no doubt a testing individual – both on stage and as a role for an actor to play – and Machell takes on the challenge with a respectable performance, forming an entertaining double act alongside McMillan.

Elsewhere, Ken Drury delivers a solid portrayal as the temperamental and passionate Mr Kirk, despite Drury’s Scottish accent occasionally sounding somewhat Russian.

Yet it is perhaps the intimate setting of the production which is the most impressive. Performed in the small but wonderful King’s Head Theatre, Lewis’ design, coupled with Jessica Lazar of Atticist’s masterful direction, compliments both the space and script perfectly.

Throw in the point that we, too, become watchful observers as the story unfolds, and the play produces a marvellously subtle fourth wall break, a sign of truly thought-provoking theatre.

Outlying Islands is now playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 2 February 2019.

I was invited to watch this show for free in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this review and all views stated are my honest opinion.