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‘The Trench’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
The Trench, Les Enfants Terribles, Southwark Playhouse
© Rah Petherbridge

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Les Enfants Terribles mark the centenary of the end of WW1 by bringing back this gothic 2012 hit

Endlessly inventive theatre company Les Enfants Terribles have an extensive repertoire of solid shows to fall back on, a result of their celebrated, 17-year history. ‘The Trench’ is one such number from their back catalogue: an inventive, exuberantly mythic fable set in the mud and mire of World War One, restaged here at Southwark Playhouse to mark the conflict’s centenary. It’s like The Killers rolling out ‘Mr Brightside’. A classic hit. 

Theatre has suffered from a surfeit of commemorative First World War plays since 1914 – so much so that a twinge of compassion fatigue has started to set in. Relief then, because co-directors Oliver Lansley and James Seager’s 2012 show is far more concerned with visuals and theatricality than earthy, realist WW1 drama.

The story is like ‘Journey’s End’ crossed with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. A British sapper gets trapped in a trench tunnel by a German mine. Deep underneath No Man’s Land, he encounters a series of grotesque demons and a trio of nightmarish tasks, which he has to complete in order to earn back his future.

Like all Les Enfants Terribles shows, ‘The Trench’ is a decidedly quirky cocktail – one part real-life war-time story, one part bastardised Greek myth, and one part physical theatre show, laced with an original soundtrack of plaintive, Celtic-infused folk songs and told almost entirely in revivalist rhyming couplets by the four-strong cast.

That sounds weird, right? And it definitely is, for quite a while. The different ingredients just don’t gel together, despite the production’s well-worn performance groove. The poetic script is strained and clunky, the collision of WW1 tale and gothic, Guillermo del Toro weirdness jars, and Alexander Wolfe’s haunting, Nick Mulvey-esque tunes are evocative but ill-fitting. It’s all visually stunning – slick movement sequences, smart prop-usage, and extraordinary, slightly terrifying puppets abound – but the disparate elements don’t quite click.

Until, that is, towards the end of the show’s inoffensive 65-minute run time, when things suddenly fall into place. Lansley’s story and Wolfe’s music combine to create a heavenly crescendo that’s both beautifully staged and mightily moving. An unexpectedly tearful finale to a fitful play.

Written by
Fergus Morgan


£12-£30, £16 concs. Runs 1hr 10min
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