BWW Review: THE TRENCH, Southwark Playhouse
Bert, three times rejected for military service, has his wish and is in (or rather, under) the trenches in France, laying mines to kill German soldiers. He has struck up an unlikely friendship with Collins, a greenhorn kid who looks up to him taking lessons on how to survive World War I - and how to be a man. But when a mine blows up their tunnel - the Germans had plans of their own - Bert and Collins are buried and must find a way out.
Cue Bert hallucinating a golem-like creature who sets him challenges, one feels the physical manifestation of mental turmoil, as he scrambles through the earth, the bodies and the blood, seeking clean air and sunshine.
Les Enfants Terribles' The Trench is part-play, part-performance artwork and part-gig (not to mention part-Dungeons and Dragons) but, in its laudable ambition, it falls awkwardly between those stools.
Writer, Oliver Lansley, has chosen verse rather than prose and the words unfortunately slide into Rupert Bearish rhyming couplets much often or feel crowbarred into the narrative - there's some rather good poetry set in those dreadful fields, so it's no easy hand to play.
The spoken text is supplemented by pleasing music (from a Springsteenish Alexander Wolfe, but that anachronism is okay in these post-Hamilton days) but the guitar is amplified for a larger space (or a gig crowd) leaving a theatre audience frustrated at not being able to make out the lyrics. An asset turns into another sensory overload that doesn't progress the narrative.
The golem's "Three Tasks required for Salvation" may be a cliché, but it does allow for some spectacular puppetry which, along with the excellent lighting by Peter Fennell and Timothy Kelly, provide the high points of a surprisingly short show.
But that is the major issue for a play that collapses into a vehicle for some eye-opening coups de theatre without us ever getting inside the minds of the men whose story it purports to tell. Lansley himself plays Bert, who loses both wife and son, but when he reads the dread news in a letter, we don't connect because we don't know him. Kadell Herida is all puppyish devotion as young Collins, but he might as well be a puppy for all we know of his hopes and fears.
For some, the spectacle will be enough, but many will leave believing that they saw half a good play or half a good show. The opportunity to fulfil potential in any of the format-hopping's genres sacrificed on the altar of attempting too much in too short a time.