27 January 2012

The Sea Plays at The Old Vic Tunnels

Certain events have "visit me" stamped on them in large bold letters and this was one of them.

Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse was one of my theatrical highlights of the last year and so the chance to see some of his earlier works in similar settings was always going to be attractive.

The Old Vic Tunnels is one of London's most unusual theatres which makes it well worth a visit even for "average" shows.

And it was my birthday.

The theatre does what is say on the tin, it is in the old tunnels that run under the approach to Waterloo Station.

There are now some signs at the station directing you towards the theatre but once you get there the theatre refuses to admit its presence.

What you find is a nondescript and uncared for door in an equally unloved industrial brick wall.

This is the entrance to the theatre.

Arriving a little before it opened it was fun to see the groups of people walking past, then back again before pausing to ask if you knew where the theatre was only to have to explain that they were there.

Come opening time the door opens and a man appears to guide the theatre goers in.

What you find there is, not surprisingly, tunnels.

Some effort has been made to clean them up and to make them safe but none has been spent on decorating or disguising them.

These tunnels are proud of what they are.

On this occasion some of the alcoves held barrels and ropes suggesting that we might be in a boat.

Having had a quick beer in the makeshift bar we were led to the screening room where the plays were to be performed. On the way we had one final treat with some of the actors stoking away in the boiler room.


The performance area was just another tunnel into which some temporary seats had been added.

The stage was set as the heart of a large boat with the brick walls melting in to metal bulk heads.

The brutality and functionality of the theatre could not have been more appropriate.

Suddenly we were in the middle of a storm with high winds, braking waves and a tossing ship.

The reaction from the crew was hectic and frantic and we had furious motion to add to the light and noise.

In the chaos one of the sailors falls injured.

And then we are into Bound East for Cardiff which follows the last days of the sailor.

He lies in bed seriously ill, his friends surprised that he survived at all, but there is nothing that anybody can do for him other than hope that he lives until they get to Cardiff.

There is no doctor or medical cabinet on board and all that the Captain can offer is some more generic remedy that is entirely ineffective.

As he lies ill he discusses a shared dream with a colleague. Both have ambitions to leave the nautical life and to start a new life, and family, on a small farm in somewhere like Argentina.

In the Zone takes us forward a few years and in to the First World War.

Here the same crew, with one new member, is heading for Liverpool with munitions. They are blacked-out in fear of U-Boats.

They are also scared of German spies and stories are exchanged of their threat and of some being found in Canada.

Suspicion then turns on their newest member who had been seen behaving suspiciously in the night.

The play revolves around this suspicion, their reaction to it, the crew member's reaction to them, and the reason for his behaviour.

The Long Voyage Home takes us on-shore. The men have a lot of money to spend (many months wages) and want to spend it on cheap whiskey and cheaper women.

Except for the middle-aged Swede who has saved for two years and is booked on a steamer home, as a passenger, where he plans to spend some time with his aged mother before she dies.

Drunk men with money will always attract those with lesser motives and the Swede becomes a target when the rest of the crew leave to carry a colleague back to the boat. It does not end well.

The three plays are connected by their characters, portrayal of the harsh life they lead and the emotions drawn from some of the harsh events (death, accusation, betrayal). This is why they work well together.

They are also very good plays enhanced by the unusual setting, the way that the director takes advantage of this and the cast that all play their significant part in the whole.

And to think that they did all that just because it was my birthday.

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