Two minutes' walk from Waterloo Station and a little, graffiti-covered door in a side wall grants you access to a starkly different world. Cold, smelling of mould, and resounding to the thunder of the trains hurtling overhead, this massive underground labyrinth of high, vaulted brick tunnels forms a magical space that has been commandeered by the Old Vic's artistic director, Kevin Spacey, as a subterranean arena for non-profit theatre pieces and art works.
As you make your way to the auditorium, specially constructed for Beth Steel's powerful debut play Ditch, an art installation gets you in the mood for the apocalyptic political and environmental extremities it depicts. A dead hare dangles over a lake of scummy blood. There are suspended soiled sheets that could be the skins of wild animals or seriously messed-up ghosts.
What's impressive about Steel's play – and Richard Twyman's compelling production – is the expert control of mood. A glinting, compassionate humour and a nicely insubordinate sense of absurdity complicates its grim near-future vision of an England now largely waterlogged, its government reduced to a band of fascist strong men.
Dearbhla Molloy is outstandingly good as Mrs Peel, the dour, flintily resourceful manager of the rural outpost with its billet of men who patrol the district for "illegals". She reacts with a withering Irish wit to the trials sent to test her, whether it be her incipiently rebellious young maid (beautifully played by Matti Houghton), or the unwanted amorous attentions of Danny Webb's company leader. In the controlled containment of Mrs Peel's demeanour, you sense the suppressed guilt of the censored past and admire the fortitude that enables her to act with a kind of brutal mercy in the face of devastating news. It's a shame that this is not a promenade production, but Ditch certainly takes you on an indelibly strange mental journey.
To 26 June (Oldvictheatre.com)Reuse content