Traversing the seas and bridging the gap between Liverpool and Norway, the ships which carry Jim Callaghan (Joe Shipman) and his fellow crew members become vessels of isolation. They breed cold-bloodedness, aggression, feelings of abandonment. Narvik by Box of Tricks might well start as a bittersweet romantic encounter, but it boils down to a tale of loss and guilt.
Maybe it’s on me for not realising that a play set during WWII would end up taking a decidedly darker turn than simply one of lost loves. Lizzie Nunnery’s script makes it clear from the off that pain resides over Narvik’s narrative, showing an elderly Jim taking a fall and allowing the memories of his youth to flood back in his final moments. Okay, the more I think about it, the initial misreading of tone is definitely on me. A word to the fellow fools, then: don’t take the play’s assertion that it is “a play with songs” to mean that it is a musical. These folk songs don’t so much provide exposition as they do a window into Jim’s youth with his estranged father, another memory which bites at his writhing current self.
Vidar Norheim and Martin Heslop’s score has some beautiful melodies and emotional swells which evoke Jim’s romance with Else (Nina Yndis) in full bloom. There’s an extra layer added to their correspondence which fleshes out their courtship – it heaves layers of rosy romanticism over a few letters and makes their final meeting all the more heart-rending. Callaghan and Yndis share a strong chemistry but this soundtrack choice makes it all the easier for them to drop all bonds for later sequences, where we find them fighting and battling against each other. They lose the soundtrack and they lose their emotional footing.
At other times, however, I found myself straining over the top of the music to hear Shipman. The script is heavy on monologues, partly because we are in such isolation with Jim. The soundtrack and slamming on set creates a cacophony which in parts lands us full-face in the wartime mess of action, but can just as easily distract us from the protagonist. Jim takes a backseat in moments of life-changing decision making, and having him drowned out makes a clear artistic point but does so to the detriment of the narrative.
There’s an incredible amount of care and detail put into the visuals of Narvik, with particular commendation to Katie Scott’s adaptable set. The versatility of her industrial style piece allows for radar boards, battered docksides, cramped bedsits and all besides. Small details such as the light reflected from dappling water shows the extra steps the team have taken to create a transformative piece of theatre.
Movement director Elinor Randle in particular has also done a superb job. The cast move through the piece with a fluidity which isn’t afforded in the narrative. The conceit invites a discordance of sequences, but it also creates the potential for the audience questioning the relevance of this particular order of events. This staging, however, results in a contrarily satisfying sense of dissatisfaction between the onstage movement and the plot.
It’s that dissatisfaction which Nunnery’s script also courts from us as the audience. There are so many paths not taken by Jim that we could construct an entirely new piece off the back of Narvik’s inaction. It’s a well-acted piece with a very strong cast, but the plot feels like it’s missing a vital piece. I’m just not sure what that piece is, exactly.
Narvik is touring until 25th March 2017. Click here for more details.