TEAM VIKING at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

James Rowland’s one man show arrives at the start of a national tour from a successful debut at last year’s Edinburgh fringe and is probably best described as a true story about death and a friendship that can’t die.

James has a passing resemblance to the blonde, bushy bearded behemoths of a Viking movie that he and his childhood friends adored, where men were much given to pillaging, wenching and being loud and unnecessary. However, that is where the resemblance ends. He has twinkling eyes and a demeanour to match. He wants to tell us a story, but first we are drawn into a cosy world where he has to operate the opening music and lights himself and we think that the only mischief around is of a gentler and more benign kind.

We hear first about James’ father’s funeral and the reactions to it. His own role is moving and poignant and most importantly is buoyed up by the forever present childhood friends, Tom and Sarah. Tom is larger than life; the kind of man who once met is never forgotten. He seems to be able to get away with anything and can romance, drink and carry on without anything ever catching up with him.  But of course, nothing ever lasts forever and what does catch up with Tom is a very rare form of heart cancer leading to the gloomiest of prognoses.  Tom has yearned for a Viking funeral and attempts to convince his best friends that they need to deliver the flaming funeral pyre on a ship that Kirk Douglas posthumously enjoyed in the favourite movie.

Rowland’s amiability never flags throughout and even though we learn that at one time he ‘behaves like a prick’ when he can no longer cope with long bedside vigils he sounds like the friend that everyone would want.  With only a crumpled funeral suit, an occasional break away to live loop a song and one obviously fake Viking helmet lying on top of the amp we are drawn into the lives and families of the three friends through an animated, but never forced narrative. The friends’ voices are clear and authentic and the pictures painted are realistic even when the circumstances become often ridiculous to the point of incredulity.

There are laughs, and many come from an embarrassed release of tension, but it is the moving tale of a lost friendship and the heightened emotionally charged moments of pure pathos that win the audience over.

Much of the power of the piece comes from an initial assurance that this is a true story, and as the events become more outlandish and bizarre that thread becomes more twisted.  Rowland may hint that some of the narrative isn’t quite what it seems, but the evening relies on an undying belief that love based on childhood friendship can itself never die. This is storytelling like the Viking sagas that deserves to be shared over and over during the remaining run.    ★★★★☆    Bryan Mason   11th September 2017