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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Kursk (a recent Whatsonstage.com Award nominee) has rightfully returned to the Young Vic, submerging us once again below the Arctic for 90 minutes of chilling, hauntingly 'immersive' theatre.

The Sound & Fury production is revived in London as part of a national tour (credit to the production team for transporting such an intricate set), transforming the Maria studio into a British submarine, scattering its audience around the action.

It takes a while to build up steam, and at times can feel a bit like a special exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. But Bryony Lavery's detailed and often humorous script ensures there's a strong narrative arc underlying the portrayal of daily life aboard a sub, and the action soon becomes compelling.

As the Commander (Laurence Mitchell) steers his men on an observation mission of the huge, nuclear weapon-laden Kursk during August 2000, we witness the mood shift sharply from euphoria to empathy as they realise their Russian counterpart has sunk and the sailors on board are dying.

By setting the action on the British vessel, the show invites us to imagine just how hellish the final moments on the Kursk must have been. During moments of total darkness, with nothing but co-director Dan Jones' haunting soundscape for company, one can only imagine the sheer levels of terror and lonelinees experienced by those trapped aboard.

Kursk also asks us to reflect on the value of these dangerous military exercises, as political empires continue their nuclear face-off. And by contrasting a personal tragedy that affects the British sailors with the comparitively cataclysmic tragedy taking place so nearby, it also brings into sharp focus the value of human life.

A final word of advice. I had a good vantage point from the gallery (standing in the centre opposite the bunk beds), and audiences are advised to choose their spot carefully before the action starts. There is some scope to move around, but with so many moments of high tension and pin-drop silence, you may well find yourself rooted to the spot.

- Theo Bosanquet

NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from July 2009, and this production's original run at the Young Vic

Kursk was the name of the Russian nuclear submarine in the naval disaster of 2000: over a hundred Russian seamen died in an onboard explosion and two dozen survived in an airtight part of the cabin while President Putin refused to let Nato come to the rescue.

In this imaginative and moving response to the incident by the surround-sound specialists Sound & Fury and the playwright Bryony Lavery, we are literally onboard a British submarine as it heads towards the North Pole and into the Barents Sea where the real-life, real-death incident happened.

You enter the Maria along a gallery which is hulled in metal sheets. You have a choice of staying at this level and perching on a narrow steel ledge, or descending by ladder to the control area of flashing screens, winking lights and a kitchen gallery surrounded by bunks with grey blankets, a shower, a toilet, a “play” area and a theatre-high hydraulic pump.

It is a wonderfully “authentic” experience, and not one recommended for claustrophobics or anyone afraid of the dark. The whole space is invaded by thumping noise, a steady thrum and the occasional, mysterious tapping sound that might have been coming from the Kursk.

Co-directed by Mark Espiner and Dan Jones (who’s also the sound man), with design by John Bausor and lighting by Hansjorg Schmidt, the show’s a wonderfully compelling update of our old friend “the carefully contrasted men of virtue confined in a tricky situation” and Lavery has written some acutely observed stereotypes.

Laurence Mitchell’s troubled commander has a lot on his plate, and explains the routine spying mission in overheard monologue. Then there’s Ian Ashpitel’s likeable coxswain who is doing a writer’s course and quoting poetry, Gareth Farr’s piss-taking officer, Bryan Dick’s chirpy navigator with a new girl back home and Tom Espiner’s jumpy new dad whose own personal tragedy is a sentimental counterpoint to the momentous disaster.

Down at ground level, the promenade production is not really mobile enough, but the sense of total immersion, and absorption, certainly is, and the technical virtuosity of the event a source of wonder as we drift ominously onwards through uncharted territory.


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