After a successful Fringe run in 2012, Les Enfant’s Terrible bring their Great War puppetry to London, but will it be to similar acclaim?
Perhaps it’s an understatement to say that there is an overwhelming amount of beautiful theatre that came out of the travesty of the first World War. Journey’s End, Under Fire, Oh, What a Lovely War!, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, and (also involving puppets) War Horse have all graced London stages, and have mostly left people moved, thinking, and perhaps maybe even a little hopeful after the sense of an ultimately cathartic ending .
It is a shame, then, that Les Enfantes Terrible’s adaptation of Oliver Lansley’s The Trench at the Southwark Playhouse is so distinctly average. Given the history and touring pedigree of this troupe, it seems surprising that they would make a show that is so derivative, so reliant on troupes. The story of a tunneller in a WWI trench on the western front and the main character Bert are far too similar to Birdsong not to notice, and the most visually stunning part of the show, the set, is undermined by the link to Greek myth made by Bert’s journey to the underworld where he is told to complete three trials in order to save his wife back in England.
All the ingredients of a great show are there; an Olivier-nominated crew with a project obviously so close to their heart (Oliver Lansey is also the artistic director of Enfantes), coming from a praised tour including a successful run at the Fringe, with original live music and compelling stage design and puppetry. Half an hour in the mood changes, however, and it becomes self-indulgent, flimsy, with the only saving grace being that the music and the eerie set design drown out the majority of the questionable script writing.
A third of a way through the remarkably short play, the question begins to ask itself; why is this still a topic that still warrants discussion? We are coming up on 100 years since Armistice, and this subject matter has been done to death. Can you call yourself an innovative theatre company if you’re not only rehashing this story, but you also do it in such a distinctly cookie-cutter way?