Arctic Convoy - A Saga of the Sea
Pink Lane Productions and KG Productions
Low Lights, North Shields
In November 1942, shortly after completing his mini-epic long poem Arctic Convoy, the engineer officer in the Merchant Navy Kenneth Greenwell died when his ship SS Goolistan was sunk in the North Atlantic—one of 3,000 young men who perished on those graveyard "suicide missions" attempting to get supplies to the North Russian ports. Churchill called this "the worst journey in the world".
Luckily, the poem was privately published by a rear admiral but remained mainly unknown to the world at large. The late Newcastle Jazz Café legend Keith Crombie unearthed a copy in a local second-hand shop (Greenwell hailed from Sacriston, Co. Durham) and, via the good offices of Jessica Johnson (Pink Lane Poetry and Perfomance) and Peter Lathan and others, the poem has been brought to life on stage. This is in fact its third outing, the second with Lathan directing.
Lathan directs Robbie Lee Hurst in the role. The poem has a startling ring of authenticity as it describes in close detail the horrors of those journeys, the vulnerable boats facing threats from both above (planes) and below (U-boats). Men are blown up, ships are sunk, people drown in front of the poet’s eyes. The Second World War is light on poetry compared to its predecessor, a fact Arctic Convoy goes some way to redress.
Hurst’s delivery is finely balanced, drawing out the work’s pathos and horrors at what it is witnessing. He is both appalled and excited at what he sees, varying the pace and emphasis of his delivery to great effect. And if the German deaths are treated with a touch of triumphalism compared to those of the allied sailors, this slightly jingoistic sense was of its time. Light and sound effects enhance the atmosphere of the performance and there’s the occasional humour (understandably, not much).
Written in traditional couplets, the poem is only occasionally overblown and it’s good to see poetry animated rather than read in wooden fashion from the book.
Peter Lathan has edited down Arctic Convoy for this performance, removing some of the more flowery language. A good idea but maybe taken to excess. We’re left with a second half (the poem itself) of around 15 minutes, compared to a longer first half—communal singing of World War Two songs led by the irrepressible Viv Wiggins.
In some ways, Wiggins is too successful in stimulating the audience. She and Peter Lathan as an ARP warden, given to corny old jokes ("The Thief of Bad Gags", as he puts it), create a kind of panto atmosphere in their double act (Lathan is the author of a book on panto and obviously loves the form). This atmosphere sits just a little uneasily with the gravitas of the poem that follows, especially given the short time the poem has to make an impression.
You realise how hard this small group works; the actors and technicians interchange at the interval. Thus Robbie Lee Hurst himself operates light and sound in the first half while Viv Wiggins takes over in part two.
The intimacy of the Low Lights space (the venue, pertinently, is only a short distance from the North Sea) saw us all belting forth with the songs, even if we did occasionally stumble through lyrics whose subtleties we had forgotten in this present age of banality.
Reviewer: Peter Mortimer