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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Eighth Wonder of the World

"There is no endeavour which the members of foreign nations have been more excited ." — The Duke of Wellington as quoted by Isambard Kingdon Brunel
The Eighth Wonder of the World
Ben Eagle as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Peter Harding as Marc Brunel (Photo: Robert Workman)
In the most remarkable venue there is a play about the great Victorian inventor, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and his father Marc Isambard Brunel and their construction of the first tunnel under the river Thames. Near Rotherhithe Station by the river is the shaft of the tunnel which, when it was started in 1825, was the only underwater tunnel in the modern world.

This was about getting people across the Thames. A bridge was not possible between Rotherhithe and Wapping because of the necessity to get big ships through to the docks. Tower Bridge which raises to allow large ships to pass wasn't started until 1885. The Duke of Wellington was a great supporter of the project because it would help him maneuver troops to and from Woolwich Barracks south of the river.

So we are in the shaft built to construct the twin tunnels. The actual tunnel now forms part of the London Overground network and has been covered in concrete to make it fully waterproof, a sacrilege to those lovers of Victorian brickwork construction.

To get into the shaft we step over a flood wall, negotiate some alternate metal steps and crawl through a small three foot square space maybe five feet long. We then come down an iron scaffolding temporary staircase into the great shaft.

Marc Brunel had devised a framework, a tunneling shield, ironwork to support the tunnel dividing the area into 36, to allow 36 miners to hollow out the tunnel using only hand tools. This shield construction is essentially what is used today for projects like the Channel Tunnel.

In 1828 when this play is set the Thames Tunnel has reached a financial crisis. Isambard Kingdom Brunel is hosting two banquets, one for the hardworking miners, seven of whom had died in floods when constructing the tunnel and the other banquet essentially a fund raiser to secure monies for the future construction from 50 donors. The money troubles led to the tunnel not being completed until 1843 when it was hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. In 1851 it received more visitors than the Great Exhibition but at a penny a journey, it was never profitable and became a railway tunnel after purchase by a railway company.

Nick Harrison's play is about father and son engineers, an unusual Victorian phenomenon because so often an entrepreneurial father would be succeeded by a wastrel, profligate, spendthrift son. Of course today it is Isambard Kingdom Brunel whom we remember rather than his father. He was saved from drowning during the Thames Tunnel construction and imagine if he had drowned what the Victorian age would have lost, the Clifton suspension bridge, the Great Western Railway, the SS Great Britain, the Royal Albert Bridge, Paddington Station and Bristol Temple Meads amongst others.

In the interaction between the two men we see an unpleasant hectoring, bullying father who has sexual relations with a scullery maid and whose son is obviously more attached to his mother. At the end of the first act a physical fight develops as the father threatens to hit his son with a walking sticking with a heavy silver handle and throws a brick at him.

I liked the way Nick Harrison has woven the details of the construction into his script and how eventually father and son work together on the seating for the money raising banquet.

I was disappointed that the actor playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel didn't look slight and dark with facial whiskers but was instead red haired and well built. In fact the only similarity with the famous images of IK Brunel was in the top hat he wore at the beginning. However the performances are fine and the whole show is topped off with a brass band who finish the evening colliery style. I was fascinated to know how the E flat Bassoon had negotiated the tunnel space into the shaft.

Much of the downstairs lighting is candles. The star of this evening is the vast circular ironwork shaft which I felt privileged to see. There are many events planned including concerts and an opera in this space; details are on the Brunel Museum site

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The Eighth Wonder of the World
Written by Nick Harrison
Directed by Martin Parr

Starring: Peter Harding and Ben Eagle
Lighting: Cat Carter
Musical director: Martin Stogden
Sound: Yvonne Gilbert
Band: North London Brass
Running time: 90 minutes with an interval
Website booking:
Booking to 14th June 2015 but other events booking
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th June 2015 performance at Thames Tunnel Shaft, Brunel Museum, Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe, London, SE16 4LF, (Overground: Rotherhithe)
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