New Diorama, London – until March 2017
A man falls to the ground, seriously injured. As he falls, ghosts of the past and his life swim before him. This is the start of Lizzie Nunnery’s extraordinary impressionistic sound picture in words and music in which she explores the darkness and unfathomable depths of the ocean, the men who roamed it in World War II on North Atlantic convoy duty and the loves it inspired.
But to say explore is far too mundane a description for Nunnery’s poetic vision which becomes at one and the same time a hymn and an epitaph to the men on board the ships, the lives they left behind and those they encountered. For Nunnery doesn’t so much explore as evoke with quick verbal brush strokes and in song what befalls young Liverpool sailor, Jim Callaghan when he steams into a Norwegian harbour and encounters Else.
The bare bones of Jim’s experiences doesn’t however go half way to conjuring the haunting atmosphere director Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder and Box of Tricks summon within the confines of a small scaffolding set, a band of three dressed in boiler suits and Joe Shipman’s Jim, Nina Yndis’s Else and Lucas Smith’s fellow sailor, Kenny.
Terror, cruelty, hopeless love, wartime reprisal and the strange relationship of men in the immensity of the ocean, pierced by voices carried on the airwaves are all created by Nunnery as Jim falls in love with Else, Kenny just a little bit with Jim and the cries of men lost at sea come vividly to life in Jim’s recollections.
`I could turn on a radio now and we’d hear fishing boats and cargo ships and cruisers halfway into the Atlantic, all talking to each other…radio signals zipping from New York to Toronto to Timbuktu. There’s no dark and silence out there. It’s all lit up.’
Somewhere in all of this, Nunnery is also examining masculinity, and alongside it, the dreams of a young woman caught in a cold landscape. And what happens when war makes her step outside conventional lines.
Sometimes it’s not entirely clear where Nunnery is taking us – that this is in part a ghost story – and Tyrrell-Pinder’s delicately painted, lovingly detailed production opts for speed and minimalism where a touch more realism might have filled out Nunnery’s brevity. But this is still a rare and unique vision, beautifully augmented by the music of Vidar Norheim and Martin Heslop to Nunnery’s own lyrics, of a part of our island history not often evoked.
Joe Shipman is hugely impressive in a role that makes heavy emotional and imaginative demands. He is supported every inch of the way by this talented company and cast. A Box of Tricks indeed. I hope we see much more of them.