Nivelli’s War – Lyric Theatre – Review by Cathy Brown
Until 19 Mar
The Lyric Theatre and Cahoots NI have joined forces to create an impressive and timely revival of Nivelli’s War, a spellbinding tale of survival, friendship and magic in the midst of war.
The production opens as magician The Great Nivelli (Dan Gordon) prepares for a performance after a long journey. He finds a red balloon, the stage lights flicker and we are transported back to his childhood as he recalls the final days of World War II, when as a young boy, he was evacuated from Frankfurt and sent to stay with his aunt Sophie (Maggie Cronin). When circumstances change, he tries to make his way back to his beloved mother (Emma Deegan) joining forces with the mysterious Mr H, a magician with a secret who takes Ernst on an incredible journey.
The cast are uniformly excellent, from Jack Archer’s child-like but affecting Ernst, to Maggie Cronin’s subtle portrayal of Tante Sophie, a woman who has seen too much and is being driven slowly mad by it. Dan Gordon is an understated but anchoring presence as the title character; however this production belongs to Bob Kelly, whose physicality and charisma create a standout performance that perfectly conveys the warmth, humanity and essential mystery of his character.
Set (Sabine Dargent), lighting (Sinead McKenna) and music (Gareth McConaghie) all harmonise to create a cinematic, often dream-like world – a dark fairy tale that is both beautiful and unnerving in equal measure. Projected images depict the personal horrors of war and simple sound and lighting effects bring the experience of an air raid to vivid life. The set is pared back, but ingeniously used with tonal greys and a smoke machine reimagining life during war time with an evocation of dust and decay.
This is heavy subject matter, but Paul Bosco McEneaney directs with a sure feel for his material but a lightness of touch. The colour palette is enlivened by splashes of red – a floating apple, a mother’s dress, a stranger’s scarf and most poignantly, a red balloon. Combined with the recurring musical motif and skilfully performed magic tricks, the audience is reminded that magic is not merely an illusion, but can be a means of survival, a moment of epiphany in the darkness.
The magic tricks that pepper the narrative are genuinely impressive and there are plenty of laughs to be had from Mr H’s masterclass in the art of the shrug. The friendship that develops between Ernst and Mr H is the beating heart of the play and the final image, as an old man remembers his friend, is unforgettable.
Nivelli’s War is an essential tale, both for the history it represents and the lessons it can still teach, and Cahoots NI tell it beautifully. The real magic they have presented is the magic of theatre and its ability to capture and transform the imagination. Do not be put off by the mention of children’s theatre. Cahoots NI have created a production that transcends the genre. This is incredible universal theatre and we are all better off for it.
Produced by Cahoots NI in association with the Lyric
Cast (in order of appearance)
Stage Manager / Butler / Soldier – Faolan Morgan
The Great Nivelli – Dan Gordon
Mother- Emma Deegan
Mr Dethier / Solider – Michael Lavery
Ernst- Jack Archer
Tante Sophie – Maggie Cronin
Mr H- Bob Kelly
The Princess – Charlotte McCurry
Director- Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney
Writer- Charles Way
Original Music/Sound Designer – Garth McConaghie