Box of Tricks
York Theatre Royal
Inspired by her grandfather’s experiences of being a naval radio operator during the Second World War, Lizzie Nunnery’s play Narvik sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of that turbulent period: Britain’s maritime involvement in the Nazi-occupied waters surrounding Norway. The result is a subtle, shifting piece of work that merges drama with music, thus allowing Nunnery to demonstrate her twin talents as playwright and singer-songwriter.
Narvik opens in present day Liverpool with ninety-year-old Jim (Joe Shipman) collapsing to the ground and losing consciousness. At this point, we are plunged into his memories of the war where he served as a naval officer. During this period he becomes besotted with a Norwegian school teacher, Else (Nina Yndis), with whom he keeps up a regular written correspondence as he travels the seas. However, torn apart by the conflict, the young lovers struggle to cleave to their romantic ideals and their letters come to a halt.
Over the course of 85 minutes, Nunnery intersperses scenes of romantic tenderness with moments of unbridled misery and horror. In addition to Jim’s ill-fated love affair, we also observe his fraught relationship with his troubled shipmate Kenny (Lucas Smith) whose repressed homosexuality is a source of simmering tension between the two men. Venturing even further into the past, there are several flashbacks to Jim’s seagoing father, who later deserts his family.
Above all else, Narvik is an exploration of memory and how it shapes the people we become. It demonstrates, to quote director Hannah Tyrell-Pinder, that “we don’t necessarily get to choose which people, places and images stay with us throughout the years”. As a memory play, the clarity of the storytelling can be opaque at times, but my overall experience of watching the play was a rewardingly coherent one.
Nunnery has described Narvik as a “new play with songs” rather than a musical. However, most of the songs—written by Nunnery and her regular collaborators Vidar Norheim and Martin Heslop—perform the dual functions that we have come to expect from that theatrical form: allowing the characters to articulate their innermost feelings and advancing the plot. A pleasing blend of ambient electronica and sea shanty, the music performed by Vidar Norheim, Maz O’Connor and Joe Hirons adds to the dreamlike quality of the production.
Katie Scott’s set design—an intricate structure of pipes and scaffolding—simultaneously provides a versatile, multi-levelled performance space and conveys the claustrophobic conditions that naval officers would have lived in.
The three actors acquit themselves well in their roles. Joe Shipman magically transforms from a wheezing nonagenarian into a callow young man, and he powerfully conveys Jim’s sense of guilt over events that occur towards the end of the play. Lucas Smith proves to be an effective foil for Shipman in his two roles, and the scenes between Jim and Kenny are arguably the most effective in the play. Nina Yndis is particularly moving in the final scenes, and it’s a shame that her character isn’t featured more.
Narvik offers a rewarding theatrical experience in which the complex nature of memory is brought to life by a talented cast and crew.
Reviewer: James Ballands