Theatre Review: SHEILA’S ISLAND – The Lowry, Salford

Abigail Thaw, Sara Crowe, Judy Flynn and Rina Fatania in SHELIA'S ISLAND.

Abigail Thaw, Sara Crowe, Judy Flynn, Rina Fatania in SHELIA’S ISLAND. Photo: Craig Fuller

With its perfect ensemble cast, SHEILA’S ISLAND is a sharp-witted comedy about four women trying to survive a night of tantrums, tears, and terror.

4 out of 5 stars

How well do you know the people you work with? How well do you want to know them, and who would crack first when the going gets tough? These are the central questions in Tim Firth’s SHEILA’S ISLAND, a reworked feminised incarnation of NEVILLE’S ISLAND, which heads to The Lowry for a week-long run this week.

The comedy follows four middle managers who take part in a corporate team-building exercise over Bonfire weekend. Overthinking at its best ensures that the group are stranded on an island, and when tempers fray, bitter recriminations appear, and harsh words are said. It soon becomes apparent that Sheila is not quite the leader she thinks she is, and the dynamics of who is in charge ebb and sway like the water around the island itself.

Judy Flynn as Sheila in SHELIA'S ISLAND.

Judy Flynn as Sheila in SHELIA’S ISLAND. Photo: Craig Fuller

SHEILA’S ISLAND stars a perfect ensemble cast. Sheila (Judy Flynn) is the bossy, “I’m in charge”, one who engineers the mess. Denise (Abigail Thaw) is the no-nonsense, bitchy bubble burster who sees every glass as not so much half full as down to the dregs. Julie (Rina Fatania) is the ready prepared-for-everything one, courtesy of the survival shop, who has the rucksack of MARY POPPINS. Then there is Fay (Sara Crowe), a slightly damaged and confused individual clinging to her notion of God to help her cope with something altogether more unpleasant and who retreats into bird watching to avoid confrontation.

Rina Fatania as Julie has some of the best comedy lines. Her facial expressions are pitch-perfect, with both Fay and Julie pointing out the blindingly obvious and providing some of the best “penny drop” moments within the play. The women bicker and occasionally pull together in an “if we must” way.

Abigail Thaw, Sara Crowe, Judy Flynn, Rina Fatania in SHELIA'S ISLAND. =

Abigail Thaw, Sara Crowe, Judy Flynn, Rina Fatania in SHELIA’S ISLAND. Photo: Craig Fuller

After the gentle first act, matters take a slightly darker turn in the second when the squabbles turn into outright hostility, masks fall, and opinions are voiced. Why is Julie’s husband not at home? Why is Denise still single, and why does the name Lucy have to be avoided at all costs when Fay is present? All give rise to a nice little run of comedy timing.

Tim Firth wrote KINKY BOOTS and CALENDAR GIRLS, and you can see the same deft slow-burn comedy touches in SHEILA’S ISLAND as well. There are laugh-out-loud moments, intakes of breath and periods when you have the punchline signposted.

Yet, for all that, SHEILA’S ISLAND is a gentle comedy about four menopausal women doing their best to survive a night of tantrums, tears and, according to Julie and her recall of films she’s never seen the end of, terror. It will make any sane person think twice about going on any team-building course.

SHEILA’S ISLAND runs at The Lowry, Salford, until 2 April 2022.