I first came across the theatre company Les Enfants Terribles when I attended Alice’s Adventures Underground at The Vaults. It was one of the most innovative, weird, hilarious and downright bonkers theatre performances I have ever seen and I loved every minute of it.
Their latest production, The Trench at Southwark Playhouse could not be more different. From the sprawling rooms of The Vaults we move on to a tiny, intentionally claustrophobic stage at the Playhouse. From the fun and frivolity of Alice we come to heart break and tragedy with The Trench. What the company have maintained is the innovation and a hint of bonkers!
This performance has three very distinct elements; it is a heart breaking play, a puppet show and a music gig. Each distinct element is brilliantly delivered but the pieces feel so disparate that it really should not work when wound together, but it actually manages to become greater than the sum of its fantastic parts.
The performance, impossible to define as a play or a musical, follows Bert, a “tunneller” whose job is to work under the trenches during World War I. The purpose of the tunnellers was to try to steal an advantage by getting closer to the other side to lay landmines.
Oliver Lansley, co-director and writer of the piece, plays Bert, who is joined by a young soldier to work alongside him. This scene is strikingly beautiful; Lansley and Kadell Herida who plays the younger man are almost balletic in their movements and in just a few minutes demonstrate the difficulty of accommodating two people in the tiny space to ultimately reaching coordination to allow them to exist there together. Bert subsequently receives bad news from home and when disaster strikes in the tunnel, Bert enters a fantasy world as he attempts to return to the surface.
Even the straight play element of this is twisted, with Lansley as Bert narrating the action in the third person while performing the role. The puppetry that is introduced into Bert’s world is superb; both the creation and the delivery. The small stage and simple set are brilliantly used to create the various realms that Bert inhabits.
Alexander WoIfe has written and performs the soundtrack to the performance, which is something I do not recall ever having seen before. Standing to one side of the stage Wolfe plays a music gig, occasionally joined by other cast members. This is not a musical so his songs do not move the narrative along but simply sit alongside the action. It is extremely effective; providing a haunting musical accompaniment.
This is a beautiful piece of theatre.
Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: Rah Petherbridge Photograph