Grandad’s Island

Reviewed by Luke Billingham & Flossie Waite
An Engine House Theatre production
Reviewed at Polka Theatre
Touring nationally until April 2018
For ages 5-8

There’s a certain type of archetypal grandad who crops up often in TV and theatre, and who clearly has a well-established place in the popular imagination: grey-haired, warm, sprightly for his age, portly but not entirely rotund, and full of cheer. Father Christmas without the reindeer or sleigh, essentially. The titular character in Grandad’s Island is – perhaps unsurprisingly – just such a grandad. His motto is “fun and adventure”, and there’s one particular person that he most loves to pursue it with: his grandson Syd.

Photo: Northedge Photography

Syd and Grandad have a weekly routine, including a day to play pirates, a day to hop on a train to a new destination, and a day for fish, chips and a story. They do mocking impersonations of Syd’s parents eating their food – all prim and proper – and then demolish their grub with their hands. They’re inseparable friends and, aside from occasional hipflask swigs of “pirate water”, Grandad shares everything with his beloved grandson. One day, though, Grandad decides to break the routine, and to share with Syd something he has kept a secret for a long time. Something even more exciting than the true composition of pirate water. It means taking Syd on their most adventurous adventure yet…

Photo: Northedge Photography

Based on an award-winning and much-celebrated picturebook by Benji Davies, Grandad’s Island includes genuinely moving moments, gentle comedy, and an artful use of projection. Syd and Grandad’s relationship is relatable and charming, and the audience invests entirely in Grandad’s character – when Syd was searching for him at one stage in the performance I saw, all the youngsters in the crowd spontaneously joined him in calling out Grandad’s name. It’s more difficult to warm to Syd, however: the exaggerated portrayal falls back on the high-pitched, excitable voice and wide-palmed physicality that adult performers can go to when playing children, and with his side-swept hair and schoolboy shorts, Syd is a 1940s idealised notion of what it is to be a child. In this touching, colourful production, it’s impossible not to love Grandad, and it’s tricky not to be irked by Syd.

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