Family shows at the National Theatre should have songs, big set pieces, gripping adventure, amazing stunts, some puppets and moral lessons. Nation has these things. Less likely subjects for family shows at the National Theatre include swine flu, the 2004 tsunami, white colonial guilt, self-hating black youth, historical revisionism and a Terry Pratchett novel stage adaptation by Mark Ravenhill of 1990s Shopping and Fucking fame. Nation has all these too. The combination makes a fascinating if somewhat difficult evening. If it transfers to the West End, would Prince Philip sneak into a performance of this like he did for War Horse? Maybe. But he wouldn't like it.
He wouldn't, as Nation follows shipwrecked Daphne from Victorian Wiltshire, encountering a rock worshipping culture under siege by cannibals. She and Mau, the man-boy made default chief of his extinct 'savage' community learn to protect one another and do all the growing up and learning requisite in a family show. They discover his 'savage' culture is more developed and sophisticated than Daphne's West. The globe won't always have England on top, depending on where you're standing. Tolerance of religious belief is kind (the god of the island is Imo - no accident that's the acronym for In My Opinion). One needs to be brave and noble for the things one loves. Growing up is tough but necessary.
The set pieces, stage effects and enthusiasm of the production are magnificent; the revolving stage adds great adventure. Simulated swimming, a shipwreck and clever video projections on three big screens are also highlights. However, the songs, muted humour and overall "making tricky issues easy for kids" atmosphere makes this otherwise enjoyable performance rather trying. The run time of nearly 3 hours doesn't help. It's like watching an earnest but charming Hackney community college non-denominational, all-faiths end of year show, produced lavishly by the National Theatre with the harshness of history toned right down. Whether that sends you running to the box office or running far, far away depends on your appetite for Nation's temperate theatre.
Nation at the National Theatre, booking until March 2010. For tickets and more information, go to the National Theatre Nation microsite.