The transformation was complete; the Victorian baths had become a snow covered Leningrad. At one end vertiginous scaffolding reached to the full height of the arched ceiling and from the uppermost platform a rope disappearing into the void above. Towards the other end of the hall a stage, some metre high by about four metres square, was lit by a spot. We’d been ushered in from the bar by some frantic women, speaking Russian, who seemed to be looking for a comrade. They were dressed against the harsh weather. Nestled in the snow were what appeared to be objects in a kind of arts installation, but were soon revealed as some dozens or so of portable speakers, which were enjoined, by means of a wordless dumb-show, to put over our shoulders.
We’d been asked to wear warm, dark clothing to the performance and having duly complied, the audience were hardly to be distinguished from the actors against the snow in the dimly lit space. Thus the sense of being part of the action was achieved. This was a war torn city (and the closest any of us would hope to be to one – with the Middle East not being far from our thoughts) with falling shells which shook the very boards beneath our feet, whilst overhead, bombers thundered past.
How to keep warm? How to survive? How to stay together? These were the urgent questions. This is a play about survival, about testing the limits of endurance and about the qualities revealed in extremesis: an act of kindness here from a criminal, an act of selfishness there from a friend. ‘People like us must ration our trust’, says one after Kub (Alex Yorke) the young man they had been looking for, had related his close escape from some unspeakable harm. And all against a constant litany of death (from those speakers).
Writer, Sharon Clark, probes a little deeper into the human condition. For Leah (Heledd Gwynn) survival loses its point when the possibility of music is taken from her. Thus drained of will she simply gives up and submits to the war, the cold and the devastation, becoming no more than a bundle of clothes. No sooner is she dead than her friends Tati (Elin Phillips) and Zoya (Roanna Lewis) strip her of anything useful. For some nothing trumps mere survival.
Director, Kate Hewitt, has controlled the disparate elements of her production; the vast space and the peripatetic audience, the animations (by Aardman), Timothy X Atack’s soundscape, Ben Pacey’s lighting and Conor Murphy’s atmospheric set. The result is immersive theatre, which engages and sweeps you along. Yet, for being anything other than your average night in the theatre this is no mere bag of tricks. The performances are clear, strong and match the scale of the production, which in its own way does justice to a grim page of history. ★★★★☆ Graham Wyles 6th October 2017