‘Islander’ Review: Two Young Women Lost and Found at Sea

The island of Kinnan is grievously underpopulated. The school has closed. The last farm struggles. The mainland calls to anyone with the wherewithal to move. But in “Islander,” a gentle new musical that arrives after runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and at London’s Southwark Playhouse, that population seems to swell. Using live looping technology, its two young performers, Kirsty Findlay and Bethany Tennick, aided by the sound designers Sam Kusnetz and Kevin Sweetser, double and redouble their voices until Playhouse 46 reverberates with bright sound.

The premise of “Islander” is a little mystical, a little misty, a little silly. If you can put your cynicism on hold for an hour and a half, it offers a sweet-natured portrait of characters trying to hold onto a sense of place and home in a threatened world. (A petite and more woo-woo “Come From Away?” Sure.) Drawing on Scotch-Irish folk tradition — selkies, merpeople — the musical tells the story of an island split in two. Some occupants took to the land; others turned to the sea. That division remains until two teenagers meet on a beach.

Each actress plays about 10 characters (humans, nonhumans, whales), but Tennick typically appears as Eilidh, the island’s last remaining child, a sensitive 15-year-old who lives with her grandmother, and Findlay most often plays Arran, a young woman (or is she?) who washes ashore one morning. United by a beached whale calf, they fall into a quick-blooming friendship that helps each of them recover from past losses and face down new ones.

Conceived and directed by Amy Draper, the musical has songs by Finn Anderson and a book by Stewart Melton. The music borrows from folk and pop, with just a whiff of electronica and maybe some whale song, too. It is often beautiful, especially when Findlay and Tennick twine their echoing voices, though the lyrics are mostly generic, with evocations of light and dark and land and sea and song. Melton’s book is livelier, relying on regional Scottish dialect. There are a few earthy elements — a running joke about a garden gnome, an islander’s late-term pregnancy — that help to balance the more fanciful aspects. This mythical world could feel more dimensional and specific, but that’s not really the way of myth. Here, the creators have flavored it with a modicum of ecology, though the emphasis is ultimately less on global climate than on small instances of mutual care and communion.

The physical production is spare, with the audience ringing a bare stage (Hahnji Jang, who also designed the costumes, is credited with environmental design) lit with oddly blinding lights (Simon Wilkinson). I saw at least one woman holding a program up to her face, shielding her eyes from the glare. And yet, the overall effect of the show is atmospheric rather than narrative. “Islander” is, as the kids say, a mood.

Who better to magnify that mood than Tennick and Findlay? Tennick, with her wild wavy hair and patched cardigan, brings real feeling to Eilidh, who resents her mother moving to the mainland for work. And Findlay, spruce in a blue jumpsuit, grounds Arran’s fable-like qualities in legible emotion. When they stand, on a diagonal, and sing into twinned microphones, their golden voices fill the room and this blank, low-ceilinged space feels crowded with life.

At Playhouse 46, Manhattan; islandermusical.com. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.