Paul (Lewis Bruniges) and Freddie Metz (Oliver Yellop), who identify as cousins, are so desperate to get out of the German Democratic Republic, commonly referred to – but not by the cousins – as East Germany, that they spent months digging a tunnel to freedom. A brain drain from East to West Germany was reduced after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, with all sorts of ramifications for those who attempted to leave but got caught trying to do so.
Needless to say, various tunnelling efforts were scuppered by the authorities – like so much in this woolly narrative, it’s not clear whether the Metz’s tunnel was discovered. The play’s ending is bizarre and comes very abruptly, as though the production were truncated at that point simply to satisfy a time restriction. The pair spend so much time engaged in conversations of all sorts: it is, of course, very feasible that they would do so over several months. Such a broad range of topics, however, doesn’t, taken together, make for gripping theatre, and I didn’t detect much in the way of dramatic tension, despite a soundscape of appropriately foreboding music.
Their bickering over a love interest at such a late stage in proceedings isn’t wholly credible, and it’s difficult to envisage Freddie seeing his girlfriend on a regular basis and yet not have the slightest inkling that something was amiss. Following a trend in contemporary plays, in this story everything is more or less going well, all things considered, until a critical incident comes along and suddenly changes the narrative arc. But a life-threatening situation isn’t, for some reason, enough to jolt the slow-burning show into something requiring an urgent and immediate response, which in turn makes it difficult to feel much sympathy for the pair’s predicament.
I suppose there’s a need to provide context to the tunnel digging, but when the benefits of the communist regime are extolled (there were some, apparently), the whole purpose of digging themselves out becomes, in effect, a pointless exercise. There’s some comic relief, firstly in the form of some radio commentary as the pair – wait for it – play with skulls of dogs they’ve discovered in the digging process, and secondly in the form of jokes being told to lighten the mood between them: fortunately or unfortunately, it would be giving too much away to regurgitate them here. These came across as unnecessary diversions from the task in hand – evidently tunnelling to a better life doesn’t seem to require tunnel vision.
The lighting works well, paradoxically in its portrayal of the limited light available in the Metz’s tunnel. Overall, however, less is more sometimes – and I might have felt more invested in this play if fewer subject areas were covered but in greater depth. In other words, Tunnels needs to dig deeper than it does, and in fewer places. As it stands, it is rather too good at portraying the longitudinal task of manual tunnel construction: the play felt considerably longer than it was.
Review by Chris Omaweng
It’s 1968. The Cold War is at its height. Cousins Paul and Freddie Metz want to escape East Berlin; the only things in their way are a 20 metre ‘death strip’, hundreds of landmines and the East German secret police. With live musical accompaniment and based on the real-life escape stories of the men and women who made it to the other side,Tunnels tells of their struggle to burrow under the Berlin Wall. With strong resonance in the UK today, Tunnels is a show about love, loyalty, family, nationhood and of course… digging.
Written by Oliver Yellop, directed by Colin Ellwood, performed by Oliver Yellop and Lewis Bruniges. Live music written and performed by Benji Hooper.
Tunnels, presented by Further Theatre, returns to London after a critically acclaimed sell-out run at the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Further Theatre in association with Park Theatre present
By Oliver Yellop
Directed by Colin Ellwood
LEWIS BRUNIGES | PERFORMER
OLIVER YELLOP | PERFORMER
NIALL RANSOME | MUSICIAN
Part of the Make Mine a Double season:
(28 Nov – 10 Dec)