With cryptic directions written on a post-it note to guide audiences to the elusive sounding tunnel 228, and a series of sinister installations lining the cold, damp walls, the experience of the Hightide/Old Vic’s co-production Ditch starts long before you take your seat in the comfort of a cold, dark railway arch and the actors begin their story.
Enter the tunnel underneath Waterloo station and you will find yourself in a hidden, gloomy world where the sound of howling winds and trains thundering above you create an altogether unsettling ambience when combined with a series of installations by the show’s designer takis.
A dead rabbit is strung up above a bloody floor, a deer is caught in the headlights and animal skins are hung far into the distance in one corridor. Most striking of all, a broken tree hangs upside down outside a dilapidated house above a pool of blood, the roots ripped from the ground providing the perfect anti-life symbol for the world that Ditch portrays.
Set in the near future in the north of England, with much of the country underwater, the world is at war over the last remaining oil pipe. With the population dwindling as young men are sent to war and others die of TB, men known as ‘security’ scan the country for illegals and talk of the elusive recovery that they believe to be going on past the isolation of their posts, where weeks go by without seeing another face.
It is a bleak and depressing world that Beth Steel has created in her debut play. The loud and aggressive Turner, their leader Burns, the young soldier James and bizarrely optimistic Bug live day to day drinking the rest of their whisky supplies, searching deserted villages and coming home to a meal cooked by the austere and hard mouthed Mrs Peel. As they live in the shell of the country, with limited supplies and dirt and mud all around them, talk of the past is banned for fear of making them die of heartache.
As the situation escalates, less news begins to reach them in their isolation and food supplies stop, touches of humanity begin to show, with a love affair sparking naive new hope and even the frighteningly cold Mrs Peel letting down her boundaries for split seconds. Aimed at being a realistic view of what could happen to civilisation, it is hard to see how there could ever be a happy ending in Steel’s world.
When you find the auditorium amongst the twists and turns of the tunnel it is almost unsettling to find yourself in such a classic theatre setting, with a stage and the iconic red, velvet seats waiting for you. However as conventional as the set up might be, the design is not a disappointment, with a stage that rains and mist that creates the effect of a freezing landscape, making your experience feel just that bit chillier than it already is.
If you wrap up warm, wear shoes you don’t mind dirtying in dust and mud and come with an open mind regarding using a portaloo, Ditch might just be an experience worthy of turning your back on the bbq summer we have been promised and stepping into the dark, damp unknown.