Bristol theatre company Raucous stage their work in found spaces. Their previous production used the tunnels under Temple Meads to create the claustrophobic world of The Stick House. This time they have used scaffolding and artificial snow to transform the hangar-like space of the derelict Jacob’s Wells Baths into the frozen, Nazi-besieged city of Leningrad.
The story of Ice Road is slender. The piece opens with three women – Leah (Heledd Gwynn), Tati (Elin Phillips) and Zoya (Roanna Lewis) – looking for the fourth member of their war-formed pseudo-family, the orphan boy Kub (Alex Yorke). Once he’s found, the play presents a snapshot of the lives of those trapped yet surviving in the ice-cold beleaguered city, where the ground is too hard to bury the dead and where roast cat is a delicacy beyond imagining. And, in a parallel narrative, Leah tells the story of her past and the shaping influences of her incarceration in one of Stalin’s Siberian gulags.
Although the evening takes time to get going, it achieves lift-off when Kub returns and Leah commences her reminiscence. With all four characters reunited, the group dynamic starts to take a clearer form. Kub’s account of his adventures and Leah’s narrative are in some ways the most gripping and the most vivid, all the more powerful for being presented merely in the mind’s eye of the audience (albeit beautifully enhanced by some highly ingenious video graphics). Writer Sharon Clark has spent a lot of time involved in storytelling events, and that experience shows in her masterful use of language to paint pictures.
Pictures are also painted by lighting designer Ben Pacey and sound designer Timothy X Atack. They envelop the audience in the world of the siege with inventive lighting and audio, and utilise the cavernous dimensions of the old baths to create – as the climax of the piece – a horrifying yet strangely beautiful representation of an aerial bombardment.
Director Kate Hewitt’s staging places the audience in the midst of the action, wrapping designer Conor Murphy’s set around the perimeter of the space and weaving the actors’ movements through the crowd of spectators. Those spectators also play an integral part in the show, both with the random audio snippets of siege life that emanate from the loudspeakers carried by every audience member and, in one scene, as members of the orchestra that continued to play nightly throughout the German blockade.
Ice Road is far from perfect. But it’s inventive, moving, touching and clever. It’s theatre as an experience. It’s also an ever-changing work in progress, which means that every night will see fresh tweaks to make it tighter and more powerful. And it is a fine display of theatre’s unique ability to use words, lights, sound and the audience’s imagination to create a world which is both tangible and affecting out of a few scaffolding poles and some fake snow.
Ice Road continues at Jacob’s Wells Baths until Sunday, November 19. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.raucous.org.uk/ice-road
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