You have to get down, damp and daring to see Beth Steel’s promising debut play Ditch in the Old Vic Tunnels, a new venue under Waterloo Station that has been acquired by Kevin Spacey and his team as a home for “innovative and surprising arts events” throughout this year.
This subterranean warren of brick walls, arches and thunderous sound effects from the trains above is ideal for Steel’s post-apocalyptic, brutally raw dystopia on a remote Peak District farm, occupied by a few security officers, while the rest of the country is under water and the allied forces are going to war with China.
On the way to the performance area, we pass installations of dead and stuffed animals, survival provisions, a dismembered tree, bloody skins and bits of protruding metal and steel that might have been there already, you can’t be sure. A semblance of domestic security is maintained in the play by Dearbhla Molloy’s Mrs Peel, cooking up deer stews, and Matti Houghton’s farm girl Megan, skinning rabbits and doing the laundry.
But time is running out. Danny Webb’s grizzled old Burn has been appointed the new security chief, but he only has three men: Sam Hazeldine’s gruff, muscular Turner, Paul Rattray’s haunted, puzzled Bug and new boy James, played with a nicely pitched, wide-eyed callowness by impressive newcomer Gethin Anthony.
The war is over, communication lines destroyed -- and the king’s gone to Venezuela. There have been bombs in Leeds. It’s all a bit middle period Edward Bond-ish, but there’s also a narrative freshness about the writing that finds quirks and twists in the characters, and there are two smashing little love scenes that are like shards of glass glittering on the dung heap.
Richard Twyman’s production is arranged on a peat-filled disc designed by the lower-cased takis, with a mini-moat and a long diagonal wooden kitchen table, and with falling rain that looks, unfortunately, like a bathroom shower in a department store. Why do directors like water so much? It’s messy, expensive and theatrically unconvincing.
Otherwise, Twyman (who assisted Michael Boyd on the RSC Histories), does a good job of exploiting the spatial possibilities of the venue, and the acting is suitably revved up for these demanding but atmospheric conditions. You could envisage the project as a trial run for a flat-out promenade production of King Lear, for example, or Peer Gynt.