Gethin Anthony as James. Photo by William Knight
Beth Steel’s debut play does a nice line in showing, not telling. The arrival of a newbie, James, offers a chance for some explanation of what’s going on, but for most of the first few scenes, you need to listen pretty carefully to understand this brave new world.
Steel’s script, at times, is stilted, and in this senseless dystopia, it’s hard to care where things are heading for those trying to survive. While the playwright captures the monotony of a nightwatch (“Never seen a dog this far into the Peak,” witters nice-but-dim Bug. “And I’ve never had such a boring conversation!” retorts the aggressive Turner), some of the name calling and swearing, and the constant references to body parts seem a bit forced.
Thankfully, Ditch is performed by a committed cast. Gethin Anthony (James) is a lovely portrait of callow naivety as the young recruit to the dwindling security force; Danny Webb is totally believable as the old leader of the pack; and Dearbhla Molloy’s performance as Mrs Peel is like an Irish Helen Mirren: all matriarchal reserve, no-nonsense authority and deep, hidden passions.
The set (by Takis), and lighting design (by Matt Prentice) are also great. Ditch plays out on a muddy ring, surrounded by a water-filled, err, ditch. In the cold, dark, underground tunnels, you really get the feeling that elsewhere, England is underwater.
Until a train rumbles loudly overhead, and destroys all that.
Because, for all the great performances and the atmospheric lighting, we can’t help thinking the rural, farm-based Ditch is the wrong play for this cool new space under the distinctly urban arches of Waterloo station.
It’s tricky when a cast is better than a script; it’s problematic when the theatre is more interesting than the play (characters run off stage, and you long to follow them and explore these Shunt-like tunnels, not sit in your incongruous Old Vic theatre seats); but what’s most awkward here is that the theatre bar(!) trumps the lot.
Called Bunker and designed by Junk & Gems and Hendzel & Hunt, this is a gorgeous, dusky pink boudoir of a drinking den, with mismatched mirrors, comfy reclaimed sofas, great lighting and the secret-special atmosphere of an as yet undiscovered, great London drinking hole. Step into Bunker for interval drinks, and you’re sure to find your interest in what happens to the sketchy characters on stage wane.
Pay for the play. Go endure Ditch; then enjoy Bunker.