FringeReview UK 2018
Oliver Lansley, both writer, co-director with (with producer James Seager) and star of a cast of five has created this piece with another founding cast member, Alexander Wolfe – on guitar for much of the action, who produces the sound design as well as composes.
Samuel Wyer’s set is a backdrop of trench ramparts, and underworld of slats and canvas, with sliding or removable panels allowing Paul Green’s original lighting to blaze through a central aperture like a blinding revelation. The dun costumes break with obvious tradition as the shirts worn are light khaki, grey or dirty white. Most innovative though are the puppets, handled by two of the cast, Guide, Demon and gas monster.
Oliver Lansley and Les Enfants Terribles toured The Trench from 2012-15. Yet till now it’s never been to London. Southwark Playhouse amends this in their Large Studio and the results are extraordinary – even more than in the original run.
It’s not another war piece, or even unique (as it is) for tackling miners tunnelling underneath the enemy. Where else but with Les Enfants Terribles will you encounter monsters, a demon, or a gas monster with extraordinary puppetry?
Naturally it’s a dark brother of War Horse, and in one sense they’ve a fairytale element in common, in this case more pronounced, and condensed – in under seventy minutes. But these mark the fork in the forked animals that appear when a tunnel caves in and Bert, based on a real miner, attempts to escape and ultimately rescue Collins, his twenty-two year old injured comrade. Oh, and it’s in verse. There’s even references to Wilfred Owen and a sense that his poem ‘Strange Meeting’ is not only quoted (‘like a devil sick with sin’) but inhabited. It’s not stated but you’re straight away in:
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned…
The verse is skilfully evocative, on occasions powerful. Deploying archaic contractions to produce a rapid dialect-inflected delivery, it’s passed from character to character in a seamless narrative; essentially story-telling rather than any dialogue. It’s not unlike that used by Mike Bartlett in more ironic mode for his 2014 King Charles IIII.
Lansley, both writer, co-director with (with producer James Seager) and star of a cast of five has created this piece with another founding cast member, Alexander Wolfe. Who’s on guitar for much of the action, and produces the sound design as well as composes.
Samuel Wyer’s design is easily one of the most striking. The set itself is a backdrop of trench ramparts, and underworld of slats and canvas, with sliding or removable panels allowing Paul Green’s original lighting to blaze through a central aperture like a blinding revelation which eventually it becomes. The dun costumes break with obvious tradition as the shirts worn are light khaki, grey or dirty white – as was the case for many. There’s no battledress, these men are part-stripped for a very different action.
Most innovative though are the puppets, handled by two of the cast. The thing with blazing red eyes is in fact the Guide, but there’s a demon with greater ones, oily and blackened. The gas monster is a blanched yellowy thing eight feet high with apertures betokening blown lungs with a curious skull useful as a breathing cell later on.
The paradox is that Sapper William Hackett was deemed too old with a dickey heart to join up, but after standards lowered with casualty rates, he was able to, skilled as a miner. His wife’s expecting a child throughout the months he’s bonding with Collins, young enough to be his son, brought together from wholly different backgrounds.
James Hastings takes the brief part of Collins and the Guide, a demon who appears to tell him of three quests. The cast’s completed by Edward Cartwright and Kadell Herida. All save Lansley multi-role.
We’re treated to the way they work back to back and in narrow confines by adept uses of board depicting the narrowness of tunnels and a range of digs and conditions. THenCollins bursts in, light at the back of him, with news, sjut as Bert’s been warned of a collapse. He stops to read. His world changes twice, with the note and the implosion.
There’s another Wilfred Owen poem ‘Miners’ Lansley clearly knows. ‘They will not dream of us, poor lads, lost in the ground.’ Though Bet’s comrades do just this. But we’re in a strange mid-place Collins nowhere to be seen, Bert left alone with the letter’s knowledge slowly returning.
It’s at this point he encounters Hastings’ guide, who challenges him to three quests. The first is to walk across a field of blood and remains, the second to answer the whoosh of the gas monster with fledged wings challenging him with what could justify all this. The third he intuits as he discovers Collins. He makes his choice.
This astonishing true story of sacrifice has to be seen. It’s probably going to be rested again, but the programme and indeed text are lavishly illustrated with various colour and line drawings of the various wings and flapping monsters.
All three ensemble are consulate verse speakers and physical actors though Hastings should be singled out. Wolfe adds to this a stirring mix of rock and sprachmusik with an explosive sound system. Lansley, granitic and inspiring as his smeared face rears up in a rictus of pain or illumined in right action, remains the focus of the story. It’s a fitting memorial to loss, renewal and the sacrificial choices some consciously made for the next generation. It’s a small masterpiece.