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The Trench review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘visually stunning, vividly realised’

Oliver Lansley in The Trench at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Rah Petherbridge
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Beneath the war-torn fields of France, a desperate soldier becomes trapped in the mythic labyrinth of The Trench in this dark, compelling fantasy from Les Enfants Terribles. Originally staged in 2012, the show is revived here to commemorate the centenary of the First World War’s ending, and it’s lost none of its claustrophobic intensity.

The inventive staging, by co-directors Oliver Lansley and James Seager, draws on some faultless movement work, with performers struggling through a shifting landscape of leaning walls and slanted boards. At times, planks laid across their backs create a palpable sense of the airless crawlspaces they inhabit.

In a highly-physical performance, Lansley shines as a determined protagonist based on sapper William Hackett, whose real-life experiences are the loose inspiration for this fantastical tale. Beside him, Kadell Herida builds a likeable, well-realised character with just a few quick gestures.

Gorgeously macabre puppets, designed by Samuel Wyer, breathe life into a lucid nightmare where savage dragons coil in subterranean darkness, and horse-headed demons haunt clouds of mustard gas. Live music adds to the atmosphere, blending with a recorded soundscape to great effect as Alexander Wolfe provides emotive depth with guitar and plaintive vocals.

The lyrical script is laced with snatches of wartime poetry and unforced rhyming couplets, building up the dreamlike quality. Though the play undoubtedly earns its closing note of hopefulness, there’s nevertheless something uncomfortable about its assertion that the Great War can be remembered as anything other than an irredeemable tragedy.

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Visually stunning, vividly realised wartime fairytale from Les Enfants Terribles