FROCK-COATS AND FLOODS, TUNNELS AND THE THAMES
In the week that Crossrail tunnellers broke through beneath London, a city and river now criss-crossed with subterranean thoroughfares, how better to celebrate than to creep through a low, narrow bricky shaft , and climb fifty feet below Shoreditch into an echoing Victorian vault?
Especially if down there you find the year 1827, union jack bunting, candlelight warming leprous bricky walls, two pacing men in frock-coats lighting cigars and worrying, and a voice intoning Thomas Hood’s mocking ode to Marc Brunel, father of Isambard:
“How prospers now thy mighty undertaking, to join by a hollow way the Bankside friends of Rotherhithe, and Wapping?” asks the poet, aware of the recent floods which stopped work. “ Poking, groping, making an archway underneath the Dabs and Gudgeons…to walk under steamboats…”
It’s the ultimate site-specific theatre: for we are sitting in Brunel’s Thames Tunnel Shaft, which began the world’s first ever carriageway tunnel beneath a navigable river. It was sorely needed, the Thames being chock-full of busy shipping under sail; another bridge would have interfered badly with that, and ferry crossings were slow and disruptive on the tideway. So Marc Brunel, French-born refugee from the Revolution, began the project and his son Isambard, who became far greater, came to work as resident engineer.
Before us is young Isambard aged 21, already dreaming of the great bridges and railways and ships he will one day create alone, but dutiful in his painstaking supervision of the clay, the piles, the tunnel-shield and the labouring men, often sleeping below ground. With him his irascible mentor-father : lame, curmudgeonly and short-tempered, veteran of a debtor’s prison (his engineering brilliance not matched by business acumen) and resenting the young man’s confidence. Their tunnel is halfway, 549 feet and a recent flood repaired, but the backers and bankers are nervous, rival engineers“circling like sharks. So tonight there is to be a banquet underground to persuade them to keep on.
Nick Harrison’s play, directed by Martin Parr, is little more than an hour, and broken by an interval; slight enough but magnified by its setting, and the sense of wonder and gratitude which the name Brunel (especially the younger) brings to those of us who travel nightly through Paddington and often to the deep west. Drama is provided by their interaction, and atmosphere by the setting and sound – a distant band, cheering, rumbling (Yvonne Gilbert’s sound design). The two performers are strongly drawn: Peter Harding gives the father an arrogant curmudgeonly foul-mouthed impatience, and the very likeable Ben Eagle makes young Isambard a grave, dutiful, sturdily handsome youth with the edge of youthful unease that first apprehends a revered father’s flaws, and nerves himself to defiance. References surface to his over-studious childhood and the terror of his parents’ three-month imprisonment when he was fifteen; at one point the pair actually grapple physically in their mutual frustration at one another and the flood-ridden, imperilled task before them.
By the second half, there is a kind of reconciliation as the pair work through the seating-plan for the underground banquet: it could be any modern fundraiser, as they calculate where most advantageously to seat the “Iron Duke” of Wellington, who backed them all the way. And at last – though we may know that a year later another flood stops it again and injures the young man – there is hope again. And the brass quartet descend from the scaffolding ladders overhead and play. And speaking as a sucker for engineers, pioneers, Victorians and hope, I have to say that once you give me a tuba reflecting candlelight and blasting out the opening bars of Judas Maccabeus ten feet away from me in an ancient brick tunnel-shaft, I’m generally pretty happy.
8 – 14 June 7.30pm plus 3pm matinees on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday