Arctic Convoy: a Saga of the Sea

Written by Kenneth Greenwell, adapted for stage by Jessica Johnson with Robbie Lee Hurst, dramaturgy by Peter Lathan, and with additional material devised by Jessica Johnson and original music by Grace Ellen

Pink Lane Productions

Jazz Cafe, Pink Lane, Newcastle upon Tyne

(2011)

Review by Valerie Laws

The last time I ventured into the alternative universe which is the Jazz Cafe, it was into Shakespeare's England (see my review of To Wit: To Woo). Last night my friend and I found ourselves plunged into World War Two, which is more usually being acted out in the streets and bars around. The upstairs bar was hung with allied flags, the windows and retro mirrors were crisscrossed with tape, the wireless crackled with the boozy heartening rhetoric of Mr Churchill, and on the tables were newspapers enabling us to catch up with the latest news of Mr Roosevelt's demise and the progress of the Eighth Army.

Rightly, we were harangued by an ARP warden until we hastily covered all the windows and put out some lights. It was a bit nippy in there actually, but as I said to my friend, coal was on the ration and, after all, there was a war on.

The first half of the evening consisted of a tipsy, ditsy bar owner (Claire Kelly) singing wartime songs, accompanied by us all from typed songsheets, and hinting that some private tragedy or loss was affecting her as much as the sherry. Events were interspersed with suitable poems read with feeling by 'pub guests' Harry Bell, Bob Nicholson and Peter Lathan.

The atmosphere was of a community keeping together through adversity through words and music shared. After the interval (and I must say 40 shillings seemed pretty steep for two juice drinks! I'd normally get a dinner and a taxi home for that!), the mood darkened. The mix of desperation, courage, death and determined jollity that got our forefathers and mothers through the war was well reflected in the whole performance.

Now we heard, or more accurately lived, Kenneth Greenwell's long poem on the Arctic Convoys. Robbie Lee Hurst came on in navy coat, white sweater and cap, serious and shorn, his previous manic schtick reined in to a compelling controlled intensity, complemented at the beginning by some smouldering singing by Grace Ellen.

Greenwell's poem was written in the style of the time, in 'poetic' language, which can sound bombastic to contemporary ears, but war is bombastic, and the actor's performance convinced us that the poet actually lived what he wrote - the frozen hell of the Arctic Convoys, under constant attack from the ice of the environment and the fire of the enemy both beneath the sea and from the air.

Simple lighting and tearing sound effects (also by Jessica Johnson) completed the authentic feel: the first half had got us invested in the era, ready to believe and feel with the poet, and the actor saying his words with conviction. The dive bombing planes, the torpedoes, the dogged endurance of the convoys and those who manned them, all came across. All the more poignant, as Greenwell, from Durham mining stock, wrote it between attacks, and perished when his ship was lost with all hands after a torpedo strike in late 1942.

At this period of remembrance, we do well to recall the Arctic Convoys, who have been unsung and ignored, like many wartime Merchant seamen. It took Gorbachev to issue them medals years after the war, our own government is still shamefully sidelining their contribution.

Pink Lane Productions' two drama performances have showcased the work of two very different writers, the titan that is Shakespeare, the little-known sailor Greenwell. But their hallmark style serves both equally well. The intimate atmosphere, the blurring of boundaries between audience and cast, while still retaining a clear 'stage': the involving of the audience, in a non-threatening way, not only during the play but before, by dressing the room and providing props such as newspapers: the feeling of being in a time capsule. I was glad to hear that To Wit: To Woo will be touring some more northern venues ( look out for dates at Customs House, South Shields and Washington Arts Centre among others), and I will be looking out for more from Pink Lane Productions.