Brighton Fringe 2013
A miner finally gets to serve “King and Country” in the Great War, only to face more demons, both real and imagined, than he could have possibly dreamt of.
The five-man cast were appropriately bedecked in mud-smeared uniforms and faces streaked with black, giving the appearance of wearing domino masks, which in turn highlighted their eyes to dramatic effect.
The play was based on the true story of a British miner who became trapped underground during World War One, while digging tunnels to place explosives under enemy lines. We are introduced to Bert, a man who has hope and life waiting for him back home in the shape of a pregnant wife. He befriends the younger Collins and the two becoming tunnelling partners. But, unexpectedly and brutally, a telegram and explosion cause Bert’s physical and mental worlds to collapse around him and he is forced to struggle for survival.
The audience was gripped and entranced right from the start and Oliver Lansley’s cod-Shakespearian script settled into a comfortable rhythm, complementing the dark fantasy themes. Very little of the text was actual dialogue—the vast majority being narration, taken up a various points by each cast member, but surprisingly this didn’t excessively detract from the drama and conflict.
While not strictly a musical in traditional terms, Alexander Wolfe’s soulful, understated score, performed mostly on a guitar, was reminiscent of other dramatic shows, such as Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, that incorporate songs without breaking the narrative, or being too “showy.”
The whole mood was one of a fantastical Neil Gaiman story, or that of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and obviously had notes of classic quests into the worlds below, such as Virgil’s decent into hell and Orpheus’ rescue of his wife Eurydice from the underworld.
It is this allegorical quest that Bert reluctantly undertakes, unsure of its actual purpose until he reaches the final challenge. Bert must cross a field of terror without running, and face a ghastly horse-skull headed mustard gas phantom, who challenges him with a Sphinx-like riddle. And finally, he must face is own inner demons and vanquish them, with a resigned acceptance of what fate has in store.
Designer Sam Wyer’s impressive multi-faceted, yet minimalist, set allowed quick scene changes and breakdowns that were all performed swiftly and almost invisibly, and gave a real sense of time and place. Simple visual tricks, such as using two planks to represent the roof and floor of the tunnel, were effectively employed drawing the audience into this cramped world.
The expertly layered shadow animations added to the sense of claustrophobia as Bert’s world simultaneously collapses around him, and yet opens up other possibilities. The superb puppetry added to the surreal, otherworldly tone, dragging us down deeper into a fantasy world that may, or may not be the creation of Bert’s own mind. His underworld guide, the goblin-like creature, became utterly believable in the hands of these deft puppeteers, and the Mustard Gas Demon had a genuine sense of macabre menace as it swirled around the stage.
While the over all mood of the play is, appropriately, sober and gloomy, there is a bittersweet redemption in the light at the end of the tunnel, just perhaps not the sort the audience is expecting.
Entrancing, lyrical and enthralling, expect this to win a few Fringe awards.