The Trench – Southwark Playhouse until 17th November

★★★

Team review by Rosalind Freeborn

As we approach the final stages of commemoration of the First World War it is timely for theatre to examine aspects of the conflict which are less well-known.  The tunnellers – brave men from the mining communities of Britain – joined regiments on the Front in France to use their skills to burrow under enemy lines, listen for activity and cause damage from beneath the ground. The Trench, conceived, written, co-directed and performed by Oliver Lansley and his lively company, Les Enfants Terribles, was inspired by the story of Sapper William Hackett, the only tunneller to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in saving the lives of fellow-men but sacrificed his own.

 

This production represents the horrific challenges faced by our hero with the introduction of puppets which personify grotesque, terrifying presences which appear to Hackett while he faces the prospect of entombment in his tunnel after a German mine explodes.  He finds himself cut off from fellow miners and must dig deep within his own resolve to find a way out a seemingly hopeless situation.

 

The script is written in rhyming couplets; actors don’t actually talk to each other, they express their feelings and actions to the audience in verse. This makes it difficult to engage with the characters because we don’t hear their true voices.

©Rah Petherbridge Photography

The action is accompanied by music and song composed and performed by Alexander Wolfe.   He is ably assisted by fellow cast members who use a variety of instruments – squeeze box, xylophone, wind and brass to create accompanying and atmospheric sounds.

 

Kadell Herida plays the young soldier who, in a charmingly paced routine of mime with Oliver Lansley,  learns from the older, experienced miner how to strike the rock, listen for sound, pause to breathe, listen, eat, drink and light a cigarette.  It is in that blending of action and simplicity of physical movement that we understand the closeness and love these men share.

©Rah Petherbridge Photography

With a minimal set – blocks of criss-crossed and battered duckboards, tattered fragments of sackcloth – and clever lighting, we feel the sensation of trench and underground life.  The impression of tunnelling in confined spaces is well illustrated by miners moving along a plank on the stage while another is held placed upon their heads and backs. The confinement feels appalling.

 

Using a wide variety of theatrical skills – from puppetry to shadow dance to projections, The Trench offers an imaginatively and cleverly directed glimpse of life in the theatre of war during those dreadful days 1914 -18.  It presents a fitting reminder of the sacrifices made by millions.

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