Opening their nationwide tour at HOME, Manchester, the cast of Box of Tricks’ Narvik transported the audience to World War II, to Liverpool, Norway and life on the ship between. Rather than focusing on a strictly linear narrative, the cast (including onstage band) worked seamlessly to create atmosphere. As an audience, we weren’t watching the wartime era, we were feeling it.
The set was merely a 10 ft. by 6 ft. hollow cuboid, constructed from drainpipes and ladders. This industrial, minimalist design, by Katie Scott, enabled the cast to clamber around, adding innovative levels and layers to the stage pictures. The set itself even became part of the pervasive musical percussion. Furthermore, this openness meant that there was strictly nowhere to hide.
Thus the three-strong cast, alongside the three-man integrated band, were onstage throughout the piece. They stared intently at the action, subtly forcing our gaze to follow. This omnipresence of unknown characters certainly added a sense of ethereal ghostliness to the piece, which, in turn, strongly underlined its narrative themes.
Set in World War II, this unconventional love story presented questions of loyalty and guilt, but, above all, forced us to question where a lover ends and our idealised image of them begins. Else, played hauntingly by Nina Yndis, was thus moulded by her lover Jim’s (Joe Shipman) imagination. When sharing scenes, these two actors worked wonderfully in tandem, performing with convincing chemistry. However, these scenes, scattered by the overall lack of chronology in the play, didn’t allow for much progression or development of this central relationship.
To explain: opening with the figure of an old man (played by Joe Shipman, distinguished solely by voice), the story was figured as a collection of disjointed memories. This enabled us to feel the personality of, and intimate connection to, history. Yet, this structure didn’t entirely lend itself to a cohesive narrative.
However, the musicality, a real highlight of the production, strung the scenes together smoothly. Mostly percussive, with the occasional addition of keyboards, guitar, and the beautiful voice of Maz O’Connor, the chorus undeniably set the mood. Often allegorical, almost nursery rhyme-esque, Lizzie Nunnery’s lyrics added well to the sense of abstraction of the show as a whole, promoting an openness to personal interpretation.
While I would say that this production was a triumph of collective theatrical elements, the individual performances were certainly noteworthy. Joe Shipman had a great challenge to undertake in the lead role. Tasked with poetically rich monologues, Shipman offered a range of intense emotions: drunkenness to shellshock. If the monologues were, at times, a little lengthy, the chorus often enacted what Shipman described, thus maintaining our attention.
Supporting the lead couple was Lucas Smith, as both Kenny Atwood and Sid Callaghan. He brought humour and a sense of relaxation to the piece, whilst also creating a wonderfully convincing friendship with Joe Shipman.
In fact, the cast worked incredibly well as a singular unit. Their tactility and overlapping, balletic physicality created haunting stage pictures and embodied the music that defined the show.
As a piece of new writing, this play creates an enthralling atmosphere, ready to be transported on tour. Coming to York Theatre Royal (23 Feb), Leeds Carriageworks (28 Feb) and Harrogate Theatre (14-18 Mar), amongst others, this show is certainly an entertaining 80 minutes of theatre. Narvik is a celebration of the combined performing arts and simultaneously a touching tale of real history. Most importantly, historical storytelling and Nunnery’s scriptwriting are transformed in performance; not quite immersive, I would dub Narvik an enjoyable evening of experiential theatre.