In the near future, the world has reached breaking point: the government is forcibly mandating birth control, people are fleeing across borders, communications have broken down between major powers and volatile states, and nuclear war hangs on the horizon. Ditch makes manifest the threats, predictions, and fears gathering for generations and presents the world as it may one day be.
In the rural farmlands of northern England sits an outpost for the government’s security force, patrolling the boarder and capturing escaped “illegals”. Burns (Laurence Coy) has just been appointed the leader of their group including Bugs (Angus Evans), Turner (Giles Gartrell-Mills), and the newest recruit James (Martin Quinn). At the outpost, the food and general maintenance are taken care of by Mrs. Peel (Fiona Press) and her helper Megan (Jasmin Simmons). The days are repetitive in the countryside, until James reveals that things are not as expected in the larger cities and perhaps this outfit aren’t being provided with key information about the state of the war, their government’s control, and imminent threats to their lives.
Beth Steel’s script is ambiguous about the specifics of her characters’ circumstances, instead asking the audience to interpret clues and catch-up with the world as it now is. It seems clearest that the world is in crisis with war and disruption spanning across countries: China, England, and Venezuela. After a period of apparent control, the government is losing to uprising of civilians at home and the breakdown of agreements overseas. The open ended narrative is incredibly compelling in both its immediacy and foreboding atmosphere.
Direction from Kim Hardwick emphasises the tension of isolation and the rapidity with which the emotion of a room can change. The dynamic within the outpost balances mundanity against constant underlying threat well and with a consistent pace that keeps the audience invested throughout. Additionally, the set design by Victor Kalka imitates the script with the claustrophobia of necessity: every jar, teabag, bucket of water saved and reused. The use of dirt as a border keeps the production quite literally grounded and connected to an earth with no regard for the lives of those atop it. The sound design from composer Edward Hampton and sound designer Steph Kelly is remarkable in its use of natural, atmospheric sounds that speak to what people are truly scared of; the things that go bump in the night. Even without the other-worldly intrusions, there is something electric and unsettling in the air.
The cast have the strained camaraderie of people who have seen each other at their worst. Quinn as the flighty and unsure James has a subtly to his skill and naturalistic style that is engaging and true to life. His new relationship with Megan is intoxicatingly sweet and shines through the muck of their situation: caught in the right place but the wrong time. Equally, the relationships between Evans and Gartrell-Mills or Press and Simmons run deep and display beautiful nuance to desire, care, and love. Given such a short snippet of these characters’ lives, their characterisation is sympathetic and well-rounded, constructing them as being who exist beyond the scripted stage.
The future that Steel and Hardwick present in Ditch is dire. But as Megan argues, the warning signs were there and every year the prospect of catastrophic environmental disaster, mass human displacement, and nuclear war seems more and more imminent in the real world. Projections like this, which enliven the statistics with recognisable people and places, serve as wake-up calls for the consequences of our current choices.
Ditch is running at Limelight on Oxford from April 3rd – 13th