“When I come back out it will be as a performer and all that you see will be artifice,” James Rowland informs the audience before his extraordinary show kicks off. Well, that’s after giving us the full “immersive experience” by spraying Lynx Africa all around the auditorium.
This is a story about three friends who met as five-year-olds playing vikings after being inspired by the Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis movie. Along with the seemingly mercurial Tom and engineer Sarah, James’ life is changed forever when Tom is diagnosed with heart cancer. Tom’s last wish? To be given a viking burial.
Rowland shambles around the black-draped stage like a bank manager who got his suit from a tramp as he relates the story of Team Viking and how death rudely intruded. This is the ostensible narrative, but it’s about so much more than that. At times it’s a lament for a childhood and way of life that is now gone (if you are old enough to remember that porn could be found stuffed in hedges as opposed to online when you were playing outside, then you will understand). It’s also a reflection on the meaning of belonging, life, love, loss and grief. Throughout it’s a complex examination of the nature of stories and how they inform our lives. Rowland says he even played a castle as a kid, just to “keep the narrative going” with his friends. And on his deathbed Tom exclaims that the viking stories were real to them as children.
Expertly spinning his tale, Rowland is a captivating performer: no situation is too grim for humour, from body-snatching to trying to light a Christmas pudding with Parkinson’s disease. Whilst the laughs come thick and fast, it’s the sheer swiftness of the tone changes that are breathtaking. Far from being awkward, these act as something of a punch in the stomach.
Aided by a loop pedal and speaker, Rowland occasionally pauses between scenes to perform little snippets, recording and adding layer on layer as he goes along. Like the memories and narratives being spun these overlap, compliment and ultimately harmonise whilst proving comedic and moving at the same time. It’s a simple yet disquieting and hauntingly effective approach, especially as it transpires that this ditty is what he performed at Tom’s viking burial. Similarly, the use of Lynx Africa; this was sprayed on Tom’s corpse to make him smell “like a teenager” once more. There is nothing in this show which doesn’t mirror or come back to add another nuance of meaning for the audience. Thematically rich and expertly structured, Team Viking is an utter triumph.
Rowland teases when closing with “And all of this is…” Does it matter if it was true? After all, sometimes stories are better than real life.