Review: Narvik (New Diorama Theatre, London)

The first review on this blog might not be all that representative. I don’t go to the theatre that often; this was my second trip since ooh, probably 2009? But having read an interview with the playwright, Lizzie Nunnery, there was too much about Narvik to resist.

Narvik tells the story of one man’s experience of the Arctic Convoys in WWII. The narrative emerges through a series of memories, told for the most part in chronological order, whilst the protagonist, now an old man, lies trapped on his floor after a fall. I was drawn to go and see it because my grandfather was a supply officer in Murmansk and Archangel during the war (though he didn’t talk about it much); because of my own interest in Norwegian history; and because of Nunnery’s distinctive way of writing folk song and music into her plays.

The stage design and the use of said music were two of the most instantly impressive things about Narvik. I’m still humming the haunting theme (see the video above): scene changes, slipping between memory and the present and back again, and then sometimes deeper into childhood memories, were smoothed through music. Three backing actors sprinkled just enough keyboard, mandolin and percussion behind the stark vocals to fill out the space, making the small theatre feel as expansive as the view from a Norwegian fjord. The scaffold that they circled around and over functioned as a ship’s bunks, communications array and deck, as well as a backstage of sorts. The action fitted the compact space beautifully, and never felt limited by the setting.

Narvik is only about 90 minutes long, and it’s an intense experience, carried by the three main actors. Joe Shipman, playing the protagonist, Jim, has to maintain a particularly gruelling level of emotional tension throughout, but his powerful Liverpudlian accent buffets you securely through the waves of Nunnery’s poetic script. Lucas Smith is equally effective in the two roles of Jim’s father and his closest comrade, bringing something for the psychoanalysts as Jim struggles with the anger he feels towards his absent parent. The third member of the main cast, Nina Yndis, makes a flighty, feisty Else: a young teacher in pre-war Oslo, and when the story wraps back around to post-war Oslo, Yndis sells the changes her character has had to endure particularly effectively — and at a point when it is most difficult to sympathise with the protagonist, Jim.

It was a far more personal play than I anticipated: Jim is lovingly rooted in Nunnery’s own Liverpool, and he’s an angry, lonely guy, whose anger and loneliness is magnified by the war. His affair with Else highlights the cruel after-effects of Nazi occupation and reminds us that it wasn’t only the men in the armed forces who suffered from their wartime experiences. It’s a lot to absorb in 90 minutes, and I can’t quite shake the feeling that it might have been a more effective story if it had been trying to do less. But the cast sells it with such conviction, and the atmosphere overtakes you so effectively, that this is something of a minor complaint.

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