Written and Composed by Oliver Birch
En Masse Theatre
the egg, Bath Theatre Royal, and touring
En Masse excel at writing and producing theatre for young audiences (this is recommended for 8 plus), which pushes the boundaries of children's theatre. Last year's production of The Shelter, set in a Second World War air raid shelter, was a well deserved sell-out. The Iceberg may not have the same obvious educational appeal, but it is every bit as well-imagined a piece of writing.
Dan McGowan appears as Lord Frederick Smith, a nineteenth century explorer, wincing with the shame of the global blood shed in the name of the Empire, and striving to find instead an aesthetic prize his country can be proud of: the perfect iceberg, which he will capture on canvas.
Lord Smith first approaches parliament, seeking funding for his proposed expedition. An effective sound system creates the cacophony of the House, and Smith's earnest, "Is art as worthy as artillery?" inevitably fails to win him support from the floor.
The play is beautifully and atmospherically narrated by the versatile Tim Samuels, who periodically steps out of his role as Smith's manservant, George, to directly address the audience in a light period voice. Samuel's narration does great justice to Birch's writing: together this is fine story-telling.
The story moves on board the frigate and follows their slow journey around the world, with the nineteenth century world map as a backdrop (the Empire scored out in blood red). Samuels excels in a series of small parts, as Geoffrey, the bolshie and self-aggrandised northerner, and "deaf Edward", who make up the ship's unlikely crewmen.
Nadia Albina is a captivating Isobel, a young girl who stows away on board, claiming to be made of ice, and desperate to accompany Lord Smith to Antarctica.
Oliver Birch has again succeeded in weaving fine educational threads into the story. The examination of the value of art is a running theme, with a focus on sculpture as already existing in the block from which it is hewn; all the sculptor does is, the play explains, to try to find it. And portraiture is discussed too, how an artist needs to capture more than just a likeness, but also the essence of the sitter's character.
Albina makes a brief cameo as a rather ditsy Queen Victoria, as the ship passes through the Cowes regatta, who urges Smith, "Do not make the mistake that art is more important than life".
Life at sea; the interminable boredom of the seven month journey from England to Antarctica; the perils of storms; scurvy and heat-induced delirium (in the form the sinister Water Clerk who rows out with supplies off the coast of India; another memorable cameo by Tim Samuels), all make this a valuable exercise in historical empathy as well as great entertainment.
Isobel, the little girl who claims she is made of ice, steadily melts the heart of the man who, it turns out, has more of a connection to her than he ever suspected, leading to an unexpected emotional climax.
There were moments (nothing more) where Amy Leach's direction lacked pace, and at an hour and fifteen minutes it felt a little too long. But the younger audience members were clearly transfixed, and the adults were well entertained. The Iceberg is fascinating tale, well-crafted.
"The Iceberg" runs at the egg in Bath until Saturday 9th February, and tours to the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness; Unity Theatre, Liverpool; Drama Centre, Chigwell School; Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead and the Warwick Arts Centre.
Reviewer: Allison Vale