It was known as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' – the first tunnel under a river, in this case the River Thames. Built by Marc Brunel, and his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Thames Tunnel opened in 1843, delighting visitors enough to earn that hyperbolic name.
It’s also the name of a new play by Nick Harrison. Thrillingly, the show will take place in the shaft in Rotherhithe, which descended to the beginning of the Thames Tunnel.
“I’ve always been a bit of an engineering nut,” director Martin Parr confesses. “And that makes you a fan of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.” But he was fascinated to hear on a tour of the tunnel-shaft that it was actually Isambard’s sister who was “the one with all the ideas, and a better engineer – but because she was a woman she wasn’t allowed to qualify.”
Sadly, she’s so written out of history that there’s almost nothing to base a play on. But Harrison was taken by the father-son dynamic instead, and here tells the story of a fund-raising stunt the Brunels undertook in 1827, hosting a banquet for 170 people in the tunnel-shaft itself.
Guests would have needed to be a little intrepid – as will theatre-goers today: the shaft is accessed by a scrambling through a tiny door and down scaffolding steps. But it does mean this is one site-specific show where the venue is not only richly atmospheric – but also historically accurate.
‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’, The Thames Tunnel Shaft, Brunel Museum, London, SE16 (wegottickets com/eighthwonderof theworld), 8 to 14 JuneReuse content