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Online Editor, Helena Raymond-Hayling, shares her experience of the gritty and powerful performance of Ice Road, from Raucous, a unique collective of theatre makers, scientists and technologists whose productions immerse the audience in the story.

Recalling a precious Raucous production, The Stick House, I can remember walking through the show, and being directly involved with the story. The experience was so sensory and tactile, I couldn’t wait to see Ice Road, and see how the production has developed.

As I enter the Jacob’s Wells Baths, I am met by a cloaked figure looking furtively up and down the street. ‘Welcome comrade’, they say, and hand me a blackened lily so I can ‘pay my respects’. I am glad to get my first slice of interaction, and have an inkling that nobody will be nodding off in the back row tonight.

With just minutes until the start of the performance, I manage to catch the end of the drinks and mingling reception. Another hooded ‘comrade’ hands me a vodka shot, which I accept. I had forgotten that quality vodka tastes really good, so I accept another two before three characters dressed in dirty black clothing burst into the antechamber and start a frenzied dialogue in Russian.

Ice Road is set in Leningrad, 1942. Four orphans join forces in the wreckage of an old apartment block, to survive the bitter cold and the brutality of the Leningrad blockade, where German armies surrounded the city of Leningrad and bombarded its inhabitants. By the end of the siege, some 632,000 people are thought to have died from starvation through the cruel winter.

The crowd are led into the main theatre space, where we stand in at the foot of the wreckage, a giant cascading network of scaffolding and ladders at one end of a large, echoey room at least ten metres high that is blanketed with an inch of snow. It is so spectacularly realistic that I get goosebumps and put my hands into the fine polystyrene in disbelief of its accuracy – though I’m sure the vodka aided my gullibility. We are instructed to lay down our flowers by our feet, and do so in solemn unison.

On the ground in front of each of us is a speaker with a strap, which we are directed to wear around our necks. After closer inspection, it is clear that each speaker is marked with an identity and a date of death, much like a tombstone – I soon realise that our flowers are laid on the unmarked graves of the dead.

Throughout the performance some of the speakers erupt in a monologue, animating the faceless identities of the deceased of Leningrad. My identity reads ‘Eric Fedini. 1899-1937. Loyal friend, loving uncle. A truly terrible singer.’ I wonder whether Eric Fedini had really existed, and if he hadn’t, would his identity mean any less?

‘We will show our arses to the fascists!’

A confetti of propaganda posters appear from nowhere, and three of the four main characters fall about frantically trying to gather them for fuel to keep warm. Leah, Zoya, Tati and their young companion Kub dream of escape on the only road out of the city – the ice road. They wish to pay a driver to take them across the frozen lake, but are struggling to find enough food to stay alive.

‘Who do we trust? No one.’

Leah, the eldest of the group and the fierce protagonist, played by Heledd Gwynn, tries her hardest to provide for the others, sneaking off every night without explanation and returning with food, and the others try to uncover her secret, with disastrous consequences.

After the initial babble in Russian, the cast return to speaking English with surprising but incredibly charming thick welsh accents, which makes for fantastic spitting of words in anguish, as well as some truly tremendous swearing.  I both wince in sympathetic pain and am warmed by Leah’s determination when she cries out, ‘We will show our arses to the fascists!’ or ‘fuck the great patriotic war’.

‘faces of children lie beneath the ice where the trucks fall’.

Gwynn’s performance as the  is outstanding, she communicates Leah’s strength in the face of adversity so powerfully. Leah takes charge, undertaking some rather gory tasks with magnificent pragmatism such as stitching an open wound on Kub’s forehead, whilst he thrashes around and wails in agony.

Phillips’ chilling performance shows a … sinister sense of survival

Tati, played by Elin Phillips, takes a different attitude towards survival during the siege. She is callous, and the starvation has turned her into a disgraced scavenger and an unkind taunter of the younger Zoya and Kub. She mocks Leah’s dream of reaching the ice road and talks of the fatalities there – where ‘faces of children lie beneath the ice where the trucks fall’.

She makes her companions uneasy, talking of battling the surge of people lusting after a piece of meat from a dying horse in the street, and taking payments for disposing of corpses. Phillips’ chilling performance shows a contrasting and more sinister sense of survival: animalistic desperation.

The use of the performance space and incorporation of technology into the piece is truly spectacular. We, together with the characters in the performance, experience aerial bombardment, where a cacophony of explosions and chaos rumbles through the room and reverberates beneath our feet from the surrounding speakers. An impressive incorporation of projected moving images recreate planes flying overhead, and a retelling of Kub being abducted by a man trying to sell human meat.

Ice Road is truly unmissable. I walked out totally in awe of the epic production and seamless execution of this tale of hardship, love, loss and betrayal. The play is on until 19th November, tickets available here.

★★★★★


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