DramaLondonPhysical TheatreReview

The Trench – Southwark Playhouse, London

Writer: Oliver Lansley

Directors: Oliver Lansley and James Seager

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

As the centenary of the Armistice approaches, it feels an appropriate time to revive Les Enfants Terribles’ 2012 show The Trench, set in the muddy battlefields of World War I – and far below them.

Lansley’s script takes the form of an epic poem: the combination of battle scenes and rhyming couplets reinforce the allusion to Greek epic tales, mixing the horror of war with elements of the supernatural.

And so it is here, too. When Lansley’s Bert, a former miner who has been tasked with digging tunnels under enemy lines, is trapped after an exploding mine causes his tunnel to collapse, he encounters a demon who offers him a way out if he can complete three tasks.

With a trio of soldiers acting as a chorus, Bert’s story is initially told in the third person, Lansley remaining silent, lending tremendous power to the moment when, after the tunnel collapse, Bert starts to narrate his own story.

As words alone, The Trench would be a truly epic piece of storytelling: indeed, the play script contains not only the dialogue as divvied up amongst the cast, but also as a standalone narrative poem that contains some of the most powerful evocations of the First World War one could hope to read.

But it is in the sound and visuals where this production truly excels. Alexander Wolfe’s songs, which he performs on stage, have a haunting quality to them, his gravelly, Guy Garvey-like vocals appropriate for the gritty, muddy trenches. Combined with some impressive puppetry work, from subtle shadowplay projected on to Samuel Wyer’s versatile set to the horribly lifelike full-size demonic mannequins, Les Enfants Terribles’ reputation for storytelling shines through.

And yet nothing quite cuts to the heart quite as much as Lansley’s opening prologue, a 12-line verse that works as well on its own as it does as a scene-setter for the play to come. “The future’s youth may never understand / The hell that once descended ’pon this place,” he intones – but anybody watching this production will understand all too well.

Continues until November 17 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Epic storytelling

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