Lord of the Flies: a cracking young cast can’t quite rescue this static chiller

Sade Malone (Ralph) in Lord of the Flies, at Leeds Playhouse - Anthony Robling
Sade Malone (Ralph) in Lord of the Flies, at Leeds Playhouse - Anthony Robling

For many theatre lovers, there is a certain frustration in the fact that, while many great plays are neglected, we are offered a seemingly endless procession of adaptations of famous novels. The latest in this line is director Amy Leach’s new production of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies.

It isn’t difficult to see why Leeds Playhouse and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (co-producing the piece with the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames) have alighted upon Golding’s story. Thanks, in large part, to Peter Brook’s iconic 1963 film, this tale of English schoolboys, castaway on a Pacific island, descending into violent chaos is deeply embedded in British culture.

However, while the novel still has the ability to put bums on seats, the question remains as to whether it makes for good theatre. Indeed, Leach’s production, which revives Nigel Williams’s 1995 stage adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, fails to adequately answer that question.

Boasting an impressive cast of female and male actors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, the piece does, at least, have the virtue of reflecting modern Britain. That, however, is where its modernity ends.

Played on a frustratingly static, unforgiving set (in which a multi-layered, brutalist structure stands in for the island’s mountain), the production is disappointingly conventional and theatrically uninventive. Neither Leach’s directing nor Williams’s text get to grips with the inherent tension between the episodic nature of the novel and theatre’s demand for rhythm. Consequently, this staging (which runs to around 140 minutes, including interval) feels stilted and lacking in dramatic momentum.

The famous moment in which the anxious truth-teller Simon is set upon and murdered by his erstwhile friends bears a chilling resemblance to the group killing of Pentheus in Euripides’s The Bacchae. However, as Williams’s play remains structured in novelistic chapters, rather than theatrical scenes, the event fails to propel the play forward.

Which is an immense pity, because the young cast is universally excellent. Sade Malone’s Ralph walks the fine line between moral leadership and childish bewilderment with impressive conviction. Patrick Dineen’s Jack – the choir prefect turned murderous renegade – is frighteningly convincing, as is John Battersby as Roger, the viciously over-enthusiastic bully’s apprentice.

To highlight these performances is invidious, however. Lord of the Flies demands a strong ensemble and, despite its theatrical shortcomings, this staging of Golding’s novel certainly has one.

At Leeds Playhouse until April 8, then touring until May 6. Tickets: 0113 213 7700; leedsplayhouse.org.uk