HOWARD Ella has been waiting to direct Neville's Island for 26 years. Now he is fulfilling that wish at the helm of this week's production by the Rowntree Players in York.

"I first saw Tim Firth's comedy at Harrogate Theatre as an eager 19 year old and it’s one of the performances that pushed me into a career of storytelling," says Howard.

Firth's man-watching exercise was premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1992. Like another physically demanding northern four-hander, John Godber's Bouncers, Firth's Lake District misadventure has since played anywhere and everywhere, thanks to its winning format of being an endurance test for the actors but an absolute joy for the audience.

Tim Firth, later to write scripts for Calendar Girls and Our House, sends four middle-aged, middle management suits from a Salford mineral water company on a team-bonding exercise to Derwentwater. "When they get marooned on a fog-bound November day, things slowly turn black as each of the team unravels and they're forced to face their inner demons," says Howard.

"The comedic side to the adventure is fantastic, but that isn’t the draw to a play like Neville’s Island. In a way, the comedy looks after itself. The fun and, in reality, the very difficult challenge for all involved is making sure every character has a strong and varied journey as we spend two nights on an island.

"Bringing out the darker undercurrents of the script, delving into what can make a person second guess themselves or lose the confidence and slowly unravel, really looking at how different personalities can snap at different levels: that is the challenge the play brings."

Running from Thursday to Saturday at 7.30pm at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, Howard's production features Martyn Hunter as Roy, Mark McDonald as Neville, Jamie McKeller as Gordon and Graham Smith as Angus.

"When we started rehearsals, I was clear that if we did this right, the rehearsing and development of the show should be the most difficult thing we’d all ever done," says Howard. "From a director’s point of view, this was definitely the case, and we all left every rehearsal exhausted.

"That said, I think the efforts have paid dividends. This will definitely go down as the most powerful thing I’ve directed so far… and that’s quite a claim."

To make Firth's piece work requires not only a grounding in character, but also in location. "The set is really the fifth character in the play," suggests Howard. "So, when I said to our technical managers, Paul Mantle and Lee Smith, that I’d like an island with trees, water lapping, fog sweeping in, it felt like a tall order.

"Having now got into the Rowntree Theatre, however, I can confidently say they have over-delivered! It is, beyond any doubt, the best set we've produced in my 11 years at Rowntree Players, and with Nick Lay’s lighting, we have a real-life island in a theatre on Haxby Road. This is what community theatre is all about."

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Charles Hutchinson