Ice Road is a visually impressive but narratively flawed tale of three children and their protector during the long siege of Leningrad. Raucous, the company behind the show, is a collaboration between theatre-makers and technologists; reading the credits there’s an amazing array of talent involved. Even if you didn’t know the reputation of participants such as Aardman the very fact that the list includes such a wide range of illustrators, filmmakers and projectionists is exciting. In reality though, these intriguing elements either fail to reach their potential or are undermined by the script.
The space itself (designed by Connor Murphy) is truly stunning. It’s massive, with white walls and snow beneath the audience’s feet. Its focal points are towering scaffolds and a table whose absurd size just emphasises its emptiness. The sound design, which weaves beautifully through the production, is physical as well as aural; you can feel the bombs rumbling through your shoes. Despite the fact this cavernous space was often only inhabited by three actors they filled it impressively, creating beautiful images, a credit both to Kate Hewitt’s direction and Ben Pacey’s lighting design. What didn’t fill the space was the story; it felt lost and occasionally aimless, bridging the gaps between snatches of plot with repetitive dialogue and often succumbing to cliché.
There are occasional bursts of beauty in Sharon Clark’s script; a description of a bombed building opened up on one side like a doll’s house fits with the playful feeling of the set, as well as the juxtaposition between the horrors of war and the innocence of childhood that the play explores. In fact, along with the childhood reminiscences of one of the characters, it shows that the strength of the writing lies more in its storytelling sections than in the dialogue between the characters. When the characters are in conversation the play loses its spark. The plot moves like a cart stuck in stone-filled earth; standing still before jumping suddenly in an unexpected direction. Those watching are not provided with enough connection to either the plot or the characters to really feel the emotional climax and the ending, like several moments in the play, felt totally unexplained by what had come before.
The projection and animation are effective, with some clever tricks mixing the live and the recorded, but with varying results: an effect that was magical the first time around became rather clumsily executed later in the performance. The small wireless speakers carried by audience members around their necks, spouting the voices of Leningrad were a lovely idea, but felt underused.
I do not want to believe that the ineffectiveness of the collaboration between theatre and technology in this play means that it can’t be done well. In fact I know it can be. Productions like Theatre 42’s Nothing is Coming, The Pixels Are Huge and Curious Directive’s Frogman make projection mapping and virtual reality integral parts of their work rather than interesting gimmicks. The difference lies in the way the technological elements of those productions perform an important role in creating their meaning rather than functioning as impressive window-dressing for a rather slight tale.
Ice Road is on until 19 November 2017 in Bristol. Click here for more details.