Ever walked into somewhere of historical significance and thought ‘if only these walls could talk?’ Yep, me too and if you head to the Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel, the superb location for Nick Harrison’s “The Eighth Wonder of the World” you can find out what a truly historic location has to say to us.
Its 1827 and the world’s first tunnel to ‘cross’ a tidal river has hit problems. Following a major flood, the tunnel project is in danger of collapsing as investors are becoming jittery. In an effort to keep the programmer on track and raise much needed funding Resident Engineer, and de-facto Project Manager Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Ben Eagle) is hosting a dinner in the tunnel for the great and good (and wealthy). As the evening is about to start, Isambard receives an unwelcome visitor in the shape of his elderly ailing father Marc (Peter Harding). Marc is visiting two children tonight, his son and his tunnel which he designed, raised the funding for and started building – against many obstacles – from its first production design in 1823. The relationship between father and son is strained to say the least. Marc, is a stern father, demanding obedience from his ‘child’ whereas Isambard is pretty much ready to fly the nest and be his own man free from the tyranny of his father. In the hour before the dinner starts, the two talk, argue, even fight to achieve their desired position in the familial and working hierarchy, but both know that ultimately they must find a way to, if not reconcile their differences entirely, at least attain a relationship that ensures the life and success of their tunnel.
Nick Harrison’s play is really interesting in its own right. Getting two engineering geniuses to try and work together is difficult enough but when the two are father and son, then there is the potential for major issues. Marc Brunel is beautifully observed by Peter Harding and portrayed as a curmudgeonly old man, recovering from illness – in fact it was another 22 years before he died. He doesn’t have to think before he acts or speaks and demands total respect and loyalty from his family. Ben Eagle’s Isambard is the complete opposite. He tests things, he works out plans, he thinks, possibly too much and, most important of all, he wants to break away from his father – a man from whom he is always seeking approval and possibly love. The script carries some really poignant memories of Isambard’s childhood – which sounds brutal to the modern ear but was pretty much the norm in the latter part of the reign of William IV. The two actors really work well together and bring the father/son relationship alive beautifully. The only thing slightly overshadowing the performance is the location. Although not the easiest theatre to enter, once you have navigated the small door, even smaller passage and scaffolding staircase, it is truly beautiful – something I never thought I would say about a big round shaft.
Director Martin Parr has turned the original Rotherhithe tunnel-shaft, built by Marc Brunel, into a lovely office. Simply furnished with a table and two chairs. In the centre of the space, the actors used it almost like two prize-fighters sizing each other up in a boxing ring with an audience seated all around them. The one desperate to achieve the grudging respect of the other – even at times using physical force to demonstrate the change of status between father and son.
All in all, this was an enchanting show, made more so by the location and the history behind it. I would really recommend that you take a quick tour of the attached museum before the performance, it doesn’t take long but is well worth a visit. With a simple flip of the imagination, it would be easy to imagine the ghosts of the two Brunel’s sitting watching the show with us revelling in the fact that during the performance, you can hear the trains of today passing below still using the tunnel they created.
Review by Terry Eastham
The world première of The Eighth Wonder of the World
By Nick Harrison
Directed by Martin Parr
The Brunel Tunnel Shaft
The Brunel Museum
Railway Avenue, London, SE16 4LF
Peter Harding (Marc Brunel)
Ben Eagle (Isambard Kingdom Brunel)
On 10 November 1827 the Brunels, locked in a power struggle, prepare to host a party for 170 guests in the tunnel-shaft as a public relations event following several recent disasters, including a major flood which halted the construction. On eve of the most important date in the precarious life of the tunnel, father and son must put aside underlying family tensions as they try to restore their reputation.
8th to 14th June 7.30pm, 3pm matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
Thames Tunnel Shaft, Brunel Museum, Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe, London, SE16 4LF
Tuesday 9th June 2015