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Lord of the Flies review – school staple is bang up to date for world on the brink

In many ways, Lord of the Flies is safe programming, certain to attract school groups. William Golding’s novel is a staple of the curriculum – a rite of passage for generations of teens. It could easily feel tired and overdone. Yet Leeds Playhouse makes a compelling case for this as a story that still has new things to say.

There’s a distinctly modern flavour to Amy Leach’s production. Without littering the stage with 21st-century signifiers, she manages to bring the piece right up to date. It has the pacy, dynamic quality that Leach excels at, right from the first beats of the opening movement sequence. We see the kids ripped from home, clutching bags of belongings, before they are thrust headlong into disaster. Their plane crash lands in what seems like a paradise, but Max Johns’ monochrome landscape of black trees and white stone is immediately foreboding.

Our castaways are no longer a band of privileged schoolboys but a diverse group of youngsters, adding new textures to the conflict that erupts on the island. Choir leader Jack wears his status with insecurity, bridling at the idea of leadership being assumed by Ralph – reimagined here as a girl. Jack’s bid for power reads as a toxic form of white male anxiety, as he struggles to reassert what he sees as the natural hierarchy.

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The young cast are excellent, bringing fresh life to familiar characters. As Jack, Patrick Dineen is always trying to occupy space, working hard to intimidate and control. Contrastingly, Jason Battersby’s Roger is effortlessly sinister, moving across the stage with a self-assured, sneering menace. In the central role of Ralph, Sade Malone is by turns commanding and vulnerable, while Jason Connor’s Piggy manages to come across as simultaneously decent, sensible and mildly annoying, making his exclusion all too believable.

In this version, Golding’s tale remains startlingly resonant. At a time of renewed nuclear fears, the children’s belief that they might be the only humans left alive evokes very current anxieties. And against the backdrop of recent politics, it speaks to present crises of leadership and delusions of British superiority. This is an apocalypse for now.

• At Leeds Playhouse until 8 April, then at Rose theatre, Kingston, 18-22 April; Belgrade theatre, Coventry, 25-29 April; and Northern Stage, Newcastle, 3-6 May.