Review: ★★★★ The Trench, Southwark Playhouse

Review: ★★★★ The Trench, Southwark Playhouse

Having premiered in 2012 and toured until 2015, Les Enfants Terribles revives The Trench, to mark November’s Armistice centenary. Inspired by the true life tale of WW1 tunneller William Hackett, who became entombed underground following the explosion of an enemy mine, writer and artistic director, Oliver Lansley creates an Homeric odyssey through a macabre subterranean world.

Les Enfants striking signature style of innovative props, puppetry, physical storytelling and live music permeates the piece; a distinctive mix of fact and fantasy, poetry and politics to bring a fresh horror to The Great War. The decision to write the show as an epic poem is an inspired choice for such an intense adventure – a tribute to the heroic deeds and great feats of the brave soldiers who gave their lives for king and country. It’s impossible to truly capture the stench and decay of trench warfare, and despite long-time collaborator, designer Sam Wyer’s efforts to construct the harsh reality of razor wires and wooden parapets, the truth about life behind enemy lines will always be more grim and abhorrent. In the same vein, Zahra Mansouri’s military uniforms although thoroughly coated in mud, filth and dirt can never epitomise the sodden attire that caused many young men to develop horrific medical conditions like trench foot, and Timothy Kelly’s strobes paired with Liam McDermott’s sound will never fully evoke the explosive effects that led to a generation of shell shocked soldiers. That being said, the atmosphere that is created upon first entering the Southwark Playhouse main stage successfully sets a tone for this brutal episode of human history.

Acting as a chorus, Edward Cartwright, James Hastings and Kadell Herida join Lansley and singer songwriter Alexander Wolfe to comment on the dramatic action of the piece, in a traditional Greek tragedy style. Wolfe’s original score is beautiful, with each performer contributing to it through the inventive use of numerous musical instruments. Naomi Oppenheim and Maia Kirkman-Richard’s stunning puppets give Les Enfants their deserved reputation in fabulist theatre. Handled with great respect by the actors who adopt the masterful physicality and vocal expressions for each character, directors Lansley and James Seager explore how these help the hero to overcome his reality and leave the audience questioning whether the fairy tale is real or in his imagination.

For many, real horror constitutes a permanent condition rather than a source of controlled entertainment and hopefully The Trench can act as a reminder of a horrific period of time that should never be forgotten.

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