Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Theatre review: Holes

Some productions seem to appear with perfect timing while others have the worst; it's certainly the latter when a black comedy about a plane crash coincides with news of a real one. So there's a certain amount of blocking out unfortunate associations to be done here, but Holes deserves it. Tom Basden's writing has gone from the witty, silly Party, which also became a Radio 4 sitcom, to darker absurdism including adapting Kafka for the stage. Both styles are apparent in his latest play which had an Edinburgh run last year and now comes, slightly rewritten, to the Arcola's infrequently-used third space, the Tent. I'd not seen anything here before, and it turns out to be a fun space, in the round and feeling a bit like a small circus tent, although the constant noise of traffic, Overground trains and even a gospel choir may explain why it usually houses comedy or music rather than straight plays.

Rhys Jarman's set is a raised drum of sand in the middle, the desert island on which we meet the only four survivors of the crash (and maybe, as they come to believe, the sole survivors of a global apocalypse.) Three of them are co-workers on their way to a conference; the fourth is Erin (Sharon Singh,) a teenage girl who's just lost both parents in the disaster.

Erin will have a part to play in the story but at first the orphaned girl is ignored by the trio as they treat being stranded as an extension of their long-standing office politics. So the alpha-male Ian (BAFTA-winning broadband salesperson Daniel Rigby) loudly takes charge, while doing little of any use, and missing the desperate flirting coming from Marie (Elizabeth Berrington.) Meanwhile Gus (Mathew Baynton,) with a broken arm and worried he'll never see his kids again, finds solace in the plane's alcohol supplies.

Although it goes to a few very dark places, Holes is frequently very funny. There's a lot of witty back-and-forths, and petty arguments given an added absurdity by the situation. Ian's gruff, fruitless action contrasts well with Gus' louche, comic despair. And both men have moments when their hands steal the show - Baynton's left hand should probably have got its own programme credit for its performance in one particular scene, while Rigby's moment of air-piano is one of the best-timed pieces of physical comedy you'll see.

The pacing of the final scene dips a bit at times and it could maybe have been more succinct, but Basden has come up with a sometimes bleak but always comically familiar look at people taken out of their comfort zone but unable to leave their old selves behind. And Phillip Breen's production has a good handle on the play's absurdity and some strong performances, Rigby in particular providing tireless comic invention.

Holes by Tom Basden is booking until the 9th of August at the Arcola Tent.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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