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A CurtainUp London London Review

You let it get to this! You let the sea rise and flooded cities, burst river banks and destroyed our houses. You used up oil, made cars stop, forced us inta towns. — Megan
Dearbla Molloy as Mrs Peel and Sam Hazeldine as Turner (Photo:William Knight)
In this amazing venue, the Old Vic has sponsored a theatre space in the tunnels under Waterloo Station. Last year Punchdrunk put on a promenade show there but this time Beth Steel's first play Ditch has been imported from the Suffolk High Tide Festival and although you wander through atmospherically and sinisterly decorated tunnels, smelling of damp and mould, with a dead hare hanging over a pool of blood and blood stained sheet carcasses, the play takes place with the audience sitting down.

Ditch wasn't written specifically for these tunnels but it works well there, but wear old shoes and take a coat as it is cold and damp. Unlike A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky which portrays a predicted end to the world, Ditch is about the breakdown of society both ecologically, and through warfare, and how those left struggle to exist under extreme conditions of poor communications and privation. Much of the country is under water or bog land.

The micro-society setting is an outpost of four "Security" soldiers and two women. The "Security" men are led by Burns (Danny Webb), an older man, never far from his hip flask of whisky. Turner (Sam Hazeldine) and Bug (Paul Rattray) have been stationed there for some time and plan to escape to farm together, but at the beginning of the play they are joined by a new recruit, James (Gethin Anthony).

Practical and determined, Mrs Peel (Dearbla Molloy) organises the feeding and some provisions are sent in, but there is rationing all round. People fall on a potato as if it is a rare gourmet item. Mrs Peel is helped by a sweet natured girl, Megan (Matti Houghton) who tells James that you get a bath once a year on your birthday. The men are patrolling the Peak District moors to fend off "Illegals".

We hear that cities are being bombed and that "Civilians" are laying siege to the Security Forces Headquarters, that we are at war in Venezuela, fighting in China and that nuclear strikes may be imminent. Couples are only allowed to have a baby if they win a lottery.

It is credit to Beth Steel that the complicated information as to how this future society functions is conjured up by a dialogue which seems completely natural and is also at times humorous. Of course, as in most post apocalyptic films, the prevailing issues are food, security and sex. Mrs Peel augments the supplies by growing vegetables and the men hunt deer and shoot hares but there are days when they eat just snails. Fortunately Mrs Peel has a plentiful supply of garlic!

A fledgling relationship begins between Megan and James while Burns tries to break down Mrs Peel's resistance, begging her to dance with him. The play's characters show their humanity in simple ways, in relating to each other and of course some behave better than others and there will be casualties. England itself has become an occupied war zone like Iraq. With no entertainment the play's characters start to observe the stars and what nature there is left to appreciate.

Director Richard Twyman gets frighteningly believable performances from a talented cast. The playing area has a circular stage with a large ironwork sprinkler ring high above, through which comes the rain, filling the ditch which surrounds the stage and often soaking the cast. To the rear are the railway arches and above is the persistent sound of express trains thundering through, though not engineered for the play but serving as distant cannon fire. Through the arches at night we can see bright floodlights which are the lighting designer's device.

Ditch is a haunting play, written with beautiful descriptive passages, that makes you ponder about life without the material comforts we take for granted.

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Written by Beth Steel
Directed by Richard Twyman

Starring: Dearbla Molloy, Danny Webb
With: Gethin Anthony, Sam Hazeldine, Matti Houghton, Paul Rattray
Design: takis
Lighting: Matt Prentice
Music: Tom Mills
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Movement: Renaud Wiser
Running time: One hour 45 minutes with one interval
A Co-production between High Tide and the Old Vic
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 26th June 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd May 2010 performance at Tunnel 228, The Old Vic Tunnels, Station Approach Road, Waterloo, London SE1. Follow signs to Exit 1 in Waterloo Station. This exit is nearest Platform 1 and 'Whistlestop' on the main station level. Turn right on Station Approach Road.Walk 2 minutes to Tunnels Entrance (Tunnel 228). (Rail/Tube:Waterloo)

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