Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Sham’s theatre bring a gripping and textured play to the Fringe that blends film, movement and dialogue in a story set in Greenland and Cambridge during the 1940s.
From Cambridge to Greenland, it is the 1940s and a review of Jonathan Young’s Thin Ice is has to be focused on the theatre aspects, for to focus on the gripping, always interesting and emotionally charged story would involve spoilers, and I have no intention of providing those.
This is a three-hander from the company that brought us the highly acclaimed Reykjavik and my personal favourite, The Garden. Shams Theatre have a very strong track record in fusing directly offered drama with image, movement, soundscape and textured meaning. Thin Ice is no exception, though it is perhaps the most straightforward in terms of a play that could be straight out of a wartime spy thriller (probably written by a Scandinavian author because it has subtelty and depth!), charged with emotion and plenty of symbolism.
Three actors carry this near perfectly paced drama and the action with much skill throughout the ninety minutes, supported in their efforts by a narrative that is, in essence, an unfolding, revealing story. Here love and romance blend with the obsession of the British Government with weather prediction. Along the way we experience the contrast of the modern with the ancient, as well as the corrupting force of obsession, both in nature and in science. Greenland becomes asymbolic backdrop, the ice can crack or melt at any time, opening up possibility – yet it can also fix us into paralysis and inaction.
Let me dwell for a moment on the work of Jonathan Young and Shams Theatre. It is rare to find such an erudite script realised with such clarity through an always consciously designed use of set, props, film and still image, soundscape and music, as well as synergistic acting and clever, crisp writing. Not a word is wasted, not a movement or gesture. This is theatre craft of the finest standard – from entrance to stare, from silence to laughter, from icy anger, to tender kiss, from awkward encounter, to impassioned plea; Thin Ice takes us on a story journey where we want to know what happens.
Young evokes the coldness of both arctic and of hearts wishing to melt. He creates a sense of isolation that is also reflected in the character of the scientist. He also offers us an unravelling mystery which creates the "thriller" quality.
All three actors, Calum Witney, Nick Underwood, and Esther McAuley, comprise a believable, emotional triangle yet it is also the attention to detail that gives this icy landscape the subtle qualities of believability as story. A gramaphone record player plays with utterly real, locally located sound, the placement and use of props is done with a care that creates consistency in the experience of the revealing narrative. There’s fim too, and it nver feels gratuitous – in fact it becomes a kind of extra character – informing, and even a provider of ironic quips, not to mention an icy generator of atmosphere.
If I had one criticism it is that this consistency that marks the the work out as of the highest quality fails a little in only one place. All three performers are fine actors, but there’s a mismatch of style between Laura’s naturalism, with an accent that feels very "now", compared to a more 1940s received characterisation that even borders on melodrama from the other two, especially Richard.I think this mismatch needs further work. Occasionally it feels a bit distorting.
Yet it doesn’t dent the emotional quality and impact of the piece. Nor does it limit in any way the ability of this company to deliver one of the most accomplished pieces of theatre on the Fringe this year.
I enjoyed this play. I was intrigued and affected by it. The story holds the attention. The impression stayed with me, long afterwards and, even now, the thin ice refuses to do anything more than crack a little in my personal memory.
This is very highly recommended theatre, beautifully made, lovingly and creatively realised in a way that, once again, marks Shams out as one of the most impressive companies on the Fringe.