It is exactly 300 years since Daniel Defoe published his classic tale about Robinson Crusoe and his shipwreck on a far-away island. Since then, it has become one of the most widely published books in history with over 700 different versions and imitations, such as the popular children’s book Swiss Family Robinson.
But how many people know that this famous castaway was from Yorkshire – York to be exact – and that the novel was first published with its full title of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner?
It is, therefore, not so surprising that the Yorkshire-based Fell-Foss Theatre chose to use the Crusoe story as a springboard for its very first production – Crusoe’s Island. Fell-Foss is the brainchild of former North Country Theatre actor Mark Cronfield and the company’s administrator Colin Bailey; and together they aim to carry on the theatrical baton of North Country Theatre by bringing high-quality drama to the Yorkshire Dales and beyond.
Written by Mark Cronfield, this one-man show starts with the hero back in England ruminating on the artefacts of his legendary voyage – a pipe, a pistol and some shrivelled shoes. On the island he had a surfeit of time but now – at 87 years old – this time is running out and he has a story that he wants to tell.
The story itself starts with Crusoe, aged 18, obsessed with seeing the world and wanting to go to sea despite his family’s warnings and dark omens. Following his first voyage from Hull to London, he tells of trade expeditions to Africa, invasions by pirate boats and dramatic rescues – all before the shipwreck that leads him to his desert island. The rest of the tale is well-known – many years surviving on his own (notched up each day on a post); the arrival of his companion ‘Friday’; and eventual rescue by a passing ship.
As a tale, it is packed full of all the things that good adventures are made of and proves that this is a story that has stood the test of time. But it is also reflective and thought-provoking. The grim spectre of slavery is just under the surface and the current day issues of immigration are alluded to on more than one occasion.
“We are all immigrants in one way” muses our hero when talking about his “mongrel nation” and it is surely no coincidence, that when discovering another footprint that shows he is not alone, Crusoe immediately pronounces “I must build a bigger wall”. The Britain that Crusoe has returned to has also much changed and he reflects that the island first perceived as “dismal and unfortunate” was, in fact, his salvation.
The action is portrayed on stage with great accomplishment and skill. Mark Cronfield moves easily between the central character and the other supporting fictitious roles and the simple set is cleverly adapted as the narrative moves between sea and dry land.
This is particularly so in the shipwreck scene when it is effectively dismantled – strategically just before the interval! The lighting is also used to stunning effect and there are some particularly memorable visuals as Crusoe swims towards the land and its offered hope.
This was the first night of the production, which is now touring the region until 2020. There were the odd times when the lines went slightly astray, and it could perhaps do with a bit of tightening up in parts, but this will certainly be fine-tuned as the run gets underway.
Do take the opportunity to see this show as it moves through the region. Like North Country Theatre, Fell-Foss is targeting village halls and other small venues and it is wonderful to see original productions of this standard being performed at the heart of our communities. It is a tradition well worth hanging on to. Please do support this exciting new venture!