‘I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house. The sun began to shine upon the summit of the hills as I went down the road ..’
The tantalising first lines of ‘Kidnapped’ (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, a follow up to 'Treasure Island,' set in the aftermath of the Jacobite uprising. As a brilliant plot summary, the full title is the ‘Memoirs of the adventures of David Balfour in the year 1751, how he was kidnapped and cast away; his sufferings in a desert isle; his journey in the wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he suffered at the hands of his uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so called’.
Stevenson describes writing the novel like painting a picture - "suddenly the story moved, David and Alan stepped out from the canvas, and I found I was in another world."
It was in fact his wife, Fanny who inspired this historical tale based on the trial of James Stewart accused for the murder of Colin Roy Campbell. Cleverly cast in this new adaptation as a narrator, Frances Mathilda Van der Grift Osbourne Stevenson, dressed in black lace gown, gets the show off to a lively beat with a rousing rendition of the Johnny Cash classic, ‘I’ve been everywhere, Man.’
David Balfour, a 19 year old orphan, describes his rollercoaster ride with such colourful, dramatic vision that it translates so vividly from page to stage. This is an epic buccaneering tale of skulduggery, betrayal and revenge featuring seventy characters played by an ensemble of ten actors who also perform live music from American country and 1990s love songs to Gaelic folk tunes.
Act 1 follows Stevenson’s narrative with exemplary characterisation – Ryan J. MacKay as young Davie in his brown breeches, battered boots and floppy hair, is a bewildered, lost soul who naively trusts everyone. Swindled by his Uncle Ebenezer, (Dickensian by name and miserly nature), he is easily tricked, kidnapped and put on a ship bound for America.
On board the ‘Covenant’, economically staged with a sail sheet, beams, barrels and helm, we meet a motley crew of piratical sailors and a corrupt Captain. Far from smooth sailing, they collide with another vessel and its sole survivor Alan Breck Stewart, a Jacobite rebel, niftly swings over on a rope to safety. Davie, the apolitical, law-abiding Lowlander is captivated by Alan’s roguish swagger and charismatic egotism. Malcolm Cumming, dressed in a smart blue frock coat with silver buttons, shows off his aura of French debonair elegance with a carefree, whimsical manner.
But suddenly disaster strikes with echoes of Costa Concordia, as the ship crashes onto the Torran rocks near the Hebridean Isle of Erraid (tragically, before the Stevenson lighthouse was built here in 1872!).
Frances is portrayed by Kim Ismay with raunchy American Mid-West humour as well as heartfelt emotion when she relates falling in love with Louis. We learn about a previous marriage and glimpse her tough-talking, gun-toting, cigarette-rolling, tomman personality. (Curiously, she refers to RLS as ‘Louie’ not ‘Lewis’; he was named Robert Lewis Balfour, just changing the spelling to Louis.)
As the medley of incongruous 1980s and 1990s pop songs becomes more boisterous, complete with dancing cheer leaders, it seems as if the writers begin to lose the dramatic plot through the second act.
Described as a ‘swashbuckling rom-com’, Kidnapped has been freely re-imagined as a crazy, comic caper and musical cabaret, unfortunately verging at times into moments of pantomimic farce. This detracts from, if not destroys, the richly atmospheric narrative of the novel which explores the wide disunity of Scotland, Jacobites versus Royalists, Highland chiefs, Lowlanders and evicted Hebridean Crofters.
To evoke the Scottish landscape, a backdrop screen depicts Highland mountain peaks and a sandy beach, while special effects and slick puppetry create a magical underwater scene. With fast paced, exuberant energy, you can expect tightly choreographed fight scenes with knock out punches, slicing swords and pistol shots.
Central to the action however, is the close friendship and endearing bromance (with a hint of more), between Davie and Alan, who protect each other on their madcap mis-adventures:
"He came up to me with open arms and embraced and kissed me hard upon both cheeks. “David,” said he, “I love you like a brother. And O, man,” he cried in a kind of ecstasy, “am I no a bonny fighter?” RLS, from Kidnapped.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Tue 11 – Sat 22 April 2023.
Evenings 7.30pm. Saturday matinee, 2.30pm.
Ticket prices: from £18 (concessions, £10).
Box office: 0131 348 4848
Eden Court, Inverness Wed 26 – Sat 29 April 2023; Perth Theatre Wed 3 – Sat 6 May 2023; Northern Stage, Newcastle Tues 9 – Sat 13 May 2023; Brighton Festival at the Theatre Royal Brighton, Thurs 18 – Sat 20 May 2023.