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A CurtainUp London London Review

We are heading for melting ice where fresh water meets sea water and confuses Soviet sonar. — Crew member
A scene from Kursk
(Photo: Keith Pattison)

The Young Vic has such an exciting and diverse programme of productions. A few weeks ago, an expressive dance collaboration with Sadler's Wells, next week a new Rock and Roll musical by Che Walker and this week the opening of a really encompassing promenade play about submariners. One of the two studio spaces at the Young Vic, the Maria, has been converted into the most unusual playing area. With the audience on two levels we are led into the darkened innards of a submarine with cabins and communication rooms, recreation and kitchen areas, gantries and a periscope. The audience can join the crew at the lower level, or as I did, stay aloft on the gallery and look down on the action below.

Because Bryony Lavery's play is entitled Kursk which was the name of the Russian submarine that went down in 2000 with "all hands" after an explosion in the Barents Sea, I had assumed that we were in a Soviet submarine. Wrong! It's set in a modern British hunter-killer Trafalgar class submarine on a twelve week mission to shadow Soviet vessels in international waters. The Kursk incident only surfacing towards the end of the ninety minute performance. Whilst most of the play is about the special conditions of the men, isolated as they are, apart from the monthly 40 word telex message from their families, the decision as to whether to go to the aid of the Kursk gives the play an immediate tension.

The theatre company Sound and Fury have collaborated with Lavery to produce Kursk. They specialise in "developing the sound space of theatre and presenting the audience with new ways of experiencing performance and stories by heightening the aural sense." The sounds are amazing. We hear the background sea and the noises of machinery and electronic equipment, the gantry sways and clunks as this British submarine goes on its secret mission. The lighting too is exact as technical decks feedback information about other vessels. The theatre's own sound deck masquerades as one of these. Later in the play we are told that the British ship has in stealth been close enough to photograph the Kursk and as they draw away they hear the noise of the explosion and the impact is felt onboard this submarine.

There are the last phone calls home before they dive: Donnie Black (Ian Ashpitel) trying to sort out his distance learning university coursework, Newdadmike (Tom Espiner) saying goodbye to his wife and new born baby daughter and Casanovaken (Bryan Dick) talking through his complicated sex life. As they are unable to communicate with anyone at home for the duration of the mission, the men have signed forms beforehand saying whether they want to be given bad news. Is it better not to know or to know when you are powerless to do anything or talk to anyone?

The Commander (Laurence Mitchell) has to make his decision in isolation as to whether to assist the men of the Kursk, the damaged submarine is sitting on the sea bed after the explosion. They know that some men have survived the initial blast. To reveal that the British sub has been observing the Kursk could start an international incident. The Soviets would ask questions as to whether the British vessel could have been responsible for the explosion on the Soviet submarine. If the British commander chooses to do nothing to help, they are betraying fellow submariners in trouble from a nation with which they are not at war.

There are no seats just some leaning benches like the ones found at bus stops for the hour and a half but the time goes quickly as there is plenty of activity in different parts of the submarine. There are lighter moments too, the cheerful repartee of the men, the Russian nesting wooden dolls who unpacked are called Ivan, Ivan, Ivan, Ivan, Ivan, Ivan and Igor or their solving the mysterious clicking sound from Casanovaken in the bathroom.

This is a finely staged play with its magnificent sound effects, personal interest stories and a central dilemma. It's as near as I shall ever get to life in a submarine.

Written by Bryony Lavery
Directed by Mark Espiner and Dan Jones

With: Tom Espiner, Ian Aspitel, Bryan Dick, Gareth Farr, Laurence Mitchell
Design: Jon Bausor
Lighting: Hansjõrg Schmidt
Sound: Dan Jones
Submarine Technical Adviser: Robert Nunn
Sound and Fury are Tom Espiner, Mark Espiner and Dan Jones
A Young Vic and Fuel's co-production of Sound and Fury's Kursk
Running time: One hours 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2722
Booking to 27th June 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th June 2009 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo/Southwark)

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