The Theatre Royal in Bury was filled almost to capacity as this meditation on war, inspired by the experiences of a First World War trench builder, insinuated its way onto the stage and into the consciousness. The truly talented company of five conjure up the mud-drowned world of the trenches and the ever-present spectre of wasteful and pointless death with a mixture of music, poetry, puppetry and design. It is a kind of theatre that many attempt but only few succeed in using effectively.
At an hour long there is a danger that the piece might be considered slight, but the richness of the material and its treatment avoids superficiality. In a world where entertainment and provocation come in many forms here is something that only theatre can do. It may not be flawless but it’s certainly effective.
Trench builder Bert and his junior companion Collins burrow under enemy lines when a mine explodes. This precipitates an hallucinogenic vision of the futility of war and the inevitable approach of Death. The narrative of the piece takes Bert on his final journey where, before being embraced by Death, he must face the three challenges that his own mortality, in the form of a magnificently grisly puppet, has set him.
There isn’t as much clarity about the composition of the challenges as there could have been and thus comprehension is occasionally difficult. The artistry is undeniable however. The whole piece is written in verse, non-rhyming, but verse nonetheless. Oliver Lansley, its author who has written more for TV than the stage, has an assured touch. The language is reminiscent of familiar war poetry of the period and that one forgets it is in verse after a short period of time is very much to the writer’s credit.
Most of the words are spoken by the actor playing Bert who convinces as the ex-coal miner whose work is as futile as the war that is being fought above ground. The lack of a programme makes it hard to identify his name. There is some beautiful contemporary music composed and sung by Alexander Wolfe. The puppetry is bold and effective and clearly inspired by the success of companies such as Handspring who were responsible for the magnificent creations for the production of Warhorse. The lighting is atmospheric and the set design a marvel of construction and invocation.
The challenges faced successfully, Bert may finally leave the macabre world of war, mud, blood and futility and pass into the light. There is a sentimental end to the piece that will not be to everyone’s taste but it brings, at least, everything to a marginally less desperate end than one suspects most soldiers in that ‘War to end all Wars’ were accorded.
The play now tours the country until early June and visits Peterborough, Cambridge, Norwich, Diss, Hertford and Bedford along the way. Full details of dates and venues may be found on the company’s website (www.lesenfantsterribles.co.uk)