The Trench – Tunnel Vision At It’s Best!

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Playing at The Southwark Playhouse (regular readers will know how much I like this performance venue and space!) until 17th November 2018, the performance runs for about 70 minutes.

It is brought to the venue by the Les Enfants Terribles and is advertised as ‘…blending live music, puppetry and physical performance for this special centenary production.’ so it sounded good and as it had puppetry in it too I was sold!

The piece is written by Oliver Lansley with music by Alexander Wolfe, the publicity further states that ‘The Trench is inspired by a true story of a miner who became entombed underground in a collapsed tunnel during World War One. As the horror threatens to engulf him, he finds that not everything in the darkness is what it seems. The line between fantasy and reality blurs as he embarks on an epic journey for survival questioning what’s real, what’s not and whether it even matters?’ This added even more depth to the fascination for me which, combined with the reputation that the company has since Les Infants Terribles have been responsible for other excellent productions notably ‘The Terrible Infants’ and the excellent ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’ – I was hooked!

The venue has a bar area and a small kitchen selling bar snacks (which was actually closed this performance) but there is a wide range of light snacks available from the bar too. The bar also has a good selection of beers, spirits and soft drinks which makes it a great place to meet pre-show too.

I booked my ticket using the excellent website and opted to collect the ticket at the box office. Unfortunately I had a few issues with attending the initial date but the helpful box office were able to accommodate a move request (with a small administrative fee) and I was able to move my ticket to this performance.

I arrived early and collected my ticket from the box office where I was served politely and promptly and went to the bar for my usual G&T. Tonight’s show was a special showing open to the public but the majority of the audience were school or college students who were here for the experience and educational elements of the play (this year being 100 years since the end of World War 1 when this play is set). At first I was a little dubious about this number of students but I have to say that this did not detract from the production as all were transfixed (all credit to the play and its actors!)

As you enter the darkened auditorium, there is the occasional sound of explosions and the occasional flash of light from behind the set creating the feel of war.

For the first time in a while the lay out is traditional theatre style with 8 rows A – H (with centre and side aisles) with each row being on its own tier so there is no difficulty in viewing the stage. My seat was H14 and this had great leg room and a direct view down the centre aisle to the stage.

The stage is open when you take your seats and is dimly lit, so much so it’s not possible to see detail (as if in a dark trench) but you can make out that at stage centre is a large ‘box’ with two side panels attached. On top of this is a rail with barbed wire wrapped around it – this is clearly the above ground area with the box being below ground. On stage left and right are wooden structures like small century boxes, stage right has a light houses in it angled onto stage (which becomes apparent later) and stage right has a microphone stand and instrument around it (where the singer and musician plays from). The roof is made to look like support struts (as used to prevent a tunnel from collapsing) and has several lights on it as well as a series of rope lights (used later in the production).  The details of all of this is hidden in the gloom and only reveals itself at stages during the production. As the play progresses the initial box and side panels reveal that they are decorated in a fabric and slat pattern and the side panels detach (during a certain scene). The large box actually has a front that can be lowered and raised as well as allowing the action to pass through it. There is actually a trap door front middle of the stage which hides part of one of the puppets.

The puppets that are used are both atmospheric and suited to the production from the troll like tormentor (who is excellent and detailed with fantastic shinning eyes and a contrasting red mouth) to the war dragon (larger than life) and all are animated superbly bringing added life and depth to the production.

Combining the set, the puppets and the use of both by the actors creates a very atmospheric and haunting production.

A cast of five work superbly with the set to produce a very dark but also atmospheric production with moments of delight and hope dotted amongst the sombre subject.

Oliver Lansley (playing Burt) is the main character who is the Trench Digger who forms the basis for the story. He is excellent at the role and makes it his own as a weary yet hopeful character.  I loved the way that he manages to create the illusion of space and distance by simply walking around the stage or scenery and by using pieces of the scenery to depict tunnel walls. He is brilliantly supported by Edward Cartwright , James Hastings and Kadell Herida who all have their one roles as well as bringing life to the puppets used such as the Troll or the Poison Breathed Monster who are bought to life with emotions and breath with a movement of a rod or hand, excellent (although I love puppetry and how it is being used more and more in productions).

Alexander Wolfe (the Musician) is excellent at not only playing supportive backing music to some scenes but also providing some brilliant, atmospheric songs. He has a strong voice which adds further depth to the songs and production. As he has written the music for the production it is clear he has an understanding of what was required and when from the musical elements.

Overall the production is a slick, well crafted piece. There are moments which amaze you that they have just happened such as the walking through the fields of  bodies which we view from above thanks to clever acrobatics of the cast or the rise of demons from the stage and moments of cheer human joy such as the friendship that develops between the two main characters.  In addition to being well acted it is also well researched and informed making it ‘softly’ educational too as to the conditions during the conflict – a fact that was clearly highlighted by the students response in the audience. A great piece of drama, puppetry and entertainment.

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