DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Narvik – Theatre Royal, York

Writer Lizzie Nunnery
Director: Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder
Composers: Vidar Norheim and Martin Heslop
Reviewer: Ron Simpson

It is significant that playwright Lizzie Nunnery is described as “a singer-songwriter”, Narvik is billed as “a new play with songs” and Box of Tricks, the company that commissioned it and is touring it, call themselves “the new play makers”. The play and production are very much a construct made up of all the elements of theatre, including, most notably, live music and song as integral to the drama.

Narvik is a memory play. In modern-day Liverpool 90-years- old Jim Callaghan falls and loses consciousness. Memories come back to him, first in fragments, then in a rather more coherent narrative, though one that proceeds in isolated scenes and leaves the audience to do the work of linking them.

Why should it be that Jim’s agonised thoughts are of a young woman whom he met only four times? Before the war, as a trawlerman, he sails to Norway, meets Else, a young schoolteacher, and starts a romance. If there is war, she tells him, they will not meet again – and there is war. For much of the play it seems that she will be simply a memory of carefree youth pre-war, but the closing stages reunite them in circumstances of guilt and tragedy.

The other relationship that is foregrounded in the drama is with Kenny, Jim’s shipmate and fellow radio operator when Jim returns to Norway on the infamous and heroic North Atlantic convoys. Kenny questions Jim’s courage and manhood; he tries to protect him from himself; his cynicism is a counter-balance to Jim’s innocence; once, unexpectedly, he kisses Jim on the lips. Lucas Smith cleverly brings out the ambiguity of the character beneath an open upfront exterior.

Nina Yndis’ luminous performance as Else makes us regret her disappearance for all the central part of the play and it’s good to find her dancing and carousing with Jim as a celebrating Russian. The weight of the production is carried by Joe Shipman as Jim. Never showy or over-dramatic, he brings out the poetry and the intensity of testing monologues while creating a character whose ordinariness is powerful in itself.

However, it’s the effect of the ensemble that gives Narvik its impact. Katie Scott’s set is all pipes, tubes and ladders, evocative of below decks and an ideal place for musician/singers Vidar Norheim, Maz O’Connor and Joe Hirons to perch, hide and reappear. They watch the action and heighten the intensity with one of Norheim and Martin Heslop’s folky songs or underscore the emotion with wordless song or the sounds of mandolin, guitar, keyboards and percussion, mostly improvised (i.e. tapping or banging the set).

Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder’s great success is to integrate all these elements into a seamless whole. There is a bleak episode late on when narration, music and mime fuse perfectly to chilling effect. It is difficult to say what future Narvik has as an independent play and how much the text and this compelling production have grown together and belong together.

Reviewed on 23 February 2017 then touring nationally | Image: Alex Mead 

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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