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January 19, 2023

Tim Firth on Sheila’s Island


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Sheila’s Island (UK) is a sparkling, sharp-witted new comedy by writer Tim Firth. On an annual team-building weekend, a group of colleagues accidentally stranded themselves on an island in the Lake District. The play is an updated version to Firth’s earlier work Neville’s Island (UK), now specially adapted for an all-female cast. Read more below and see whether the characters get out from the island safely.

It’s quite disconcerting for me as a writer to realise how many of my best ideas have actually come from other people.  I had a calendar of nude WI women hanging on my wall a full year before someone rang me with the idea of turning the story into a film. I had written a nativity film with adults playing children ten years before someone rang me with the idea of adapting it for stage. And when Jo Read (director) rang me and asked if I’d ever considered doing a female version of an all-male play, I remember thinking – Dammit. I wish I’d had that idea.

When the play was originally written, I probably would have jettisoned the proposal out of hand. In fact during the first run of Neville’s Island (UK) in Scarborough I hadn’t even countenanced the idea of it having any production beyond the current one. I was in my twenties and frankly over the moon to have a play on anywhere, at all.  The idea of someone ever wanting to do it again, independently of me, courtesy of whatever gender, lay beyond hope or comprehension. 

But there’s another reason, one which constituted a problem I needed to surmount as a writer. When creating a television series called Preston Front the year after Neville premiered my (female and American and quite forthright) script editor laid into me bemoaning how all the male characters were screwed up and incompetent and the females were cool, assured and strong.  She assured me this was not the case, but as a young man, I suppose that’s how it felt. Certainly I felt incompetent, less than confident, potentially flawed at every turn and happy to just have something on the telly. The greater problem it posed for my script editor and the series in general was that I was in danger of making the female characters far less interesting. They simply weren’t as much fun to play. It’s strange – history is right there waving a flag in front of your face saying ‘who wants to play the good fairy? Show me the last detective who wasn’t a shipwreck? How many great sitcom characters are monsters?’

I think at twenty-something I wouldn’t have believed that women could do to other women what men did to other men on that island.  The intervening years have disabused me of this ridiculous and patronising assumption. The weaponry may be different, but the reasons for combat are fundamental human frailties, insecurities and defensive mechanisms, common to us all regardless of sex.  Some things have changed which facilitated and justified this revisit. There’s a very strong chance a board comprised entirely of women in 1992 would have been enough of an anomaly to become another issue in the play. The mobile phones might have been less common or less effective. But the reason for being on this fog-bound outcrop and the ways that the adult humans on it react are, I think, as alive now as they were then, and as common to Sheila and her team as they are to Neville and his.

I really hope you agree.  But if you don’t, it wasn’t my idea.

Tim

To license Sheila’s Island, visit the website of Concord Theatricals in the UK.

Header Image: A promotional image of Sheila’s Island (Photography by Michael Wharley. Artwork by Feast Creative.)