Ditch @ Old Vic Tunnels, London

cast list
Gethin Anthony, Sam Hazeldine, Matti Houghton, Dearbhla Molloy, Paul Rattray, Danny Webb

directed by
Richard Twyman
Having just been through a recession, arguably caused by the excesses of capitalism, we are now looking forward to the future and recovery.

The protagonists in Beth Steels first play Ditch are in a similar position, only the collapse has been infinitely more serious, and the chances of escape all the smaller for that.

Presented by HighTide, which brought the critically acclaimed Stovepipe to London last year, the play creates an apocalyptic vision of the future. Greed and uncontrolled production have led to global warming and rising sea levels, leaving most of Britain under water.
The country is practically under martial law, Britains former allies have deserted her, and conflicts rage as Britain desperately tries to gain control of the pipeline that will secure her recovery (a word that is pointedly used).

The action takes place in a farmhouse that is now a security outpost in the Peak District. It is ironic that the atmosphere of a remote building in the wide open should be captured so well in the Old Vics recently purchased performance space, a set of tunnels beneath Waterloo station. The setting works because the dark and repressive area may not reflect the geography of the hills, but it does capture the prevailing atmosphere of gloom and despair. Two arches form the backdrop to the stage, and behind these we catch glimpses of action such as deer running through the night.

Most of the protagonists are soldiers by profession who act as security guards in this new climate, and spend their days searching for Illegals (people fleeing beyond the boundaries they have been allocated). Their work has few highlights, but the way in which they see civilians as the enemy shows how they still enjoy having just a little power within the regime. Very tellingly, the young James (Gethin Anthony) proclaims that everything he knows the army has taught him.

The soldiers are kept fed, watered and generally in order by the twenty-year old Megan (Matti Houghton) and middle-aged Mrs Peel (Dearbhla Molloy). Molloy, in particular, gives a highly accomplished performance as she plans to cultivate food and build a future, remaining determined not to destroy herself by harking back to how things used to be.

It is disappointing, however, that better use is not made of the overall performance space, especially since we are led to believe that it will be exploited to the full. As we enter the building we pass through a series of arched areas with weird and wonderful structures designed by takis. A hare is strung up above a blood soaked floor, red stained linen hangs like meat and recalls Francis Bacon paintings, and a tree chopped into pieces is suspended upside down like an Anya Gallaccio installation. These decorated rooms, and HighTides own experience in the genre, suggest that we are about to be treated to a promenade performance, and so it is sad that the entire drama then takes place on a single stage with the audience seated throughout.

The play also leaves something to be desired. Its main points that we had paradise and threw it away, and that we havent learnt our lesson by continuing to fight, hardly feel groundbreaking, and many arguments are expressed in such general or abstract terms that they fail to resonate. To achieve greater dramatic depth the play would require more promise of redemption, but although it toys with the notion, the set-up makes it impossible for this to materialise.

The ending is clever because the audience doesnt see it coming. This is more than enough to suggest that there is better to come from writer Beth Steel, if she can work on taking people to places that they dont expect to go.

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