Standing on the theatre stage in his magnificent cloak triggers memories of Ernst’s war-torn childhood, crouching in the cellar while Allied bombs caused destruction overhead, being evacuated to Tante Sophie’s farm in the countryside, and making the long trek back with a new enigmatic acquaintance ‘Mr H’ to try to find his mother at the end of the Second World War.
The star of last night’s show is young Ernst (played by Sam Clemmett) who grows up and becomes more confident as he picks up life-skills on his journey* home. The once shy child becomes adept at getting his own way in tricky situations. Mr H (Bob Kelly) is like a father to him, and ultimately he takes his name.
Dan Gordon plays The Great Nivelli, and is joined on stage by Kerri Quinn, Abigail McGinnon, Michael Lavery and Faolan Morgan.
The dark atmosphere of the war is conveyed through Garth McConaghie’s sound effects, the dimly lit set (designed by Sabine Dargent), the use of shadow and the industrial smoke machines that waft low lying fog across the stage.
The mood is lightened by illusions and expertly performed close magic tricks (white gloves, handkerchiefs, canes, the works!), and there are plenty of giggles from the audience, particularly during the lesson on shrugging.
Charles Way’s play doesn’t have all the answers. Many of the pared down scenes from last night’s performance lived on in my imagination as I drifted off to sleep, conjuring up the characters’ stories after the lights went down and the actors left the stage.
“Don’t you want to go home?”
This pivotal line in the middle of the play explains why the skulking, scavenging Mr H is willing to walk hundreds of miles to take Ernst back to his roots. The Great Nivelli’s career and touring magic show are really his grown-up tribute to all Mr H gave him, his way of recompensing his sadly unspoken gratitude.
Only an hour long, the play seemed to keep the attention of the younger children in the audience, and left them wanting more. Expect to laugh. Expect to feel slightly nervous. Expect a tear to escape your eye near the end and trickle down your cheek. Expect to learn about the war from the less-spoken-off other side. Expect to dream afterwards about hens and red balloons and magic.
Directed by Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney and produced by children’s theatre company Cahoots NI, Nivelli’s War is a beautiful and touching show that runs in The MAC until 11 March before going back on tour – Cookstown, Castleblaney, Letterkenney, Dun Laoghaire, Enniskillen and Warrenpoint – throughout the rest of March.
Brilliant theatre and suitable for 7 year olds and up. Well worth a visit, and a great imagination-boosting lead-in to the Belfast Children’s Festival that starts on Friday.
*Warning: this play contains journeys!