On Kinnen, a remote Scottish island, a chirpy radio DJ reminds his listeners that it’s 1pm on 17th Hixtember. He asks us to keep an eye out for an islander’s missing garden gnome, and to be on time to the evening’s community meeting. “Your island’s future is at stake,” we’re warned.
This is the world we observe in Islander, an Edinburgh hit that won Musical Theatre Review‘s Best Musical award at the Fringe and has now transferred to London’s Southwark Playhouse. Conceived and directed by Amy Draper, and with music and lyrics by Finn Anderson, the show stars just two actors on a near-empty stage with minimal props and lighting. It’s a tale of friendship and migration that settles into its Celtic folkiness by retaining an air of ambiguity that’s just apt for a story teetering on the line between reality and myth.
Teenager Eilidh (Bethany Tennick), a Kinnen native, is walking along the beach one day when she comes across a dying whale washed up on the shore. A charming onslaught of whooshes – somewhere between the gentle call of a slowing-down whale and the waves that lap up against its body – ring out through the speakers. Soon, Eilidh meets another newcomer to the island, Arran (Kirsty Findlay), who declares herself “ground sick” and doesn’t know how to shake hands. “Do you speak mainlander?”, Eilidh asks her. She doesn’t – she’s not from the mainland but of the Finfolk of Orcadian myth, a race of sorcerers mistrusted by mortals.
Though dubbed a “folk musical”, Islander‘s score has more of a pop focus; thankfully, there is no brandishing of banjos to be found here. The audience sit in-the-round as Tennick and Findlay move between two microphones and loop pedals, sometimes directly facing each other in a sing-off style and at others ignoring the equipment altogether to belt out their shanties a capella. Their vocal prowess is striking and their chemistry charming, as they shoot little grins to one another as they each step up to their mic. Most impressive is the electronic treatment they perform live – they use the loop pedals as weapons, moving the electronic power between them as their power play grows and weakens, and stopping their tensions altogether at just the push of a button.
While the electronics add a hypnotic element to an already ethereal play, an occasional change in tone allows the music to effectively bring character relations sharply into focus too. There is a Pitch Perfect-like moment when Eilidh is on the phone to her mother (one of many other roles played by Findlay), who lives on the mainland. (Eilidh stays with her grandmother, a frail old lady who enjoys playing dead for laughs but asks for a hand getting back up.) The mother and daughter face each other, their microphones prepared for a showdown, as Eilidh’s mother attempts a friendly catch-up with her unsurprisingly prickly daughter. “Call me back when you’ve got space to listen” becomes the refrain – sharp words from a pissed-off but ever-intuitive teenager who feels she has been abandoned in a place of nothing.
Meanwhile, there is a debate occurring among the islanders. Kinnen is being threatened with extinction as more of its inhabitants move to the mainland. At a community meeting – all “anyhoo” and “deary me” – the islanders are asked whether they want to stay or go, whether to try to find a way of sustaining their traditional lifestyle, or give it up to move to the comfort of the mainland. The discovery of the beached whale is prescient: a conservationist visiting the island (and the only character with an English accent) points out the challenges to native wildlife on and off the shores of Kinnen. “Who cares about the lesser-spotted sea slug when I can’t pay my rent?” is the cutting reply she receives.
The two actors morph so seamlessly between characters and voices that, at times, working out who is who is a bit of a minefield. But this disorientation forces forward the weirdness of this place, caught between age-old myth and the environmental pressures of the modern day. Eilidh and Arran, strangers who are both unsure of where to call home, look to the beached whale as a saviour whose “breath is warming life in us”. They follow her song, singing themselves towards a solution.