Saturday, 8 November 2014

Theatre review: Jonah and Otto

We first meet ageing clergyman Otto (Peter Egan, from the 1980s,) hugging a wall, but he's not the most unpredictable character in Robert Holman's Jonah and Otto. Somewhere in a seaside town, Otto is accosted by Jonah (Alex Waldmann,) a younger man pushing his six-week-old daughter in a supermarket trolley, and trying to get money by variously begging, stealing, and performing magic tricks. Despite having only just met, the two men seem to have become quickly invested in each other, and are soon questioning each other on not only their life stories, but also their deepest thoughts on life itself. Holman is a writer whose work I approach with a fair amount of trepidation - I found Making Noise Quietly oppressively boring, but there were parts of Across Oka I thought worked beautifully. On the surface Jonah and Otto is as wilfully oblique as the former play, but in Tim Stark's production at least I found it much more successful.

On Simon Bejer's almost-bare stage, Egan and Waldmann are both impressive, playing off a huge contrast between their characters and portrayals, the former still and calm even in the face of indignities, the latter mercurial, explosive and unbalanced.

It may of course turn out to be Otto who needs the most out of their unusual encounter, but I'd be foolish to try and nail down an explanation to Holman's gleefully ambiguous play. With two men spending a day talking by a park bench, the parallels with Waiting for Godot are right there to be drawn, and the characters often do so, Jonah knowingly suggesting that he himself might be god. Otto, for the most part, just calls him a cunt, but I imagine Waldmann's grown used to that ever since the Lumia ads.

This is clearly one of those plays whose success rests even more than usual on its cast, and with lesser actors in the roles I'm sure has the potential to be a dull, pretentious mess. But fortunately Stark's production has the kind of cast to do it justice. Jonah is suggested to have some kind of hypnotic powers, and uses them to eccentric effect (in addition to some sleight of hand, Waldmann has also had to learn how to strip Egan of his shirt without taking his jacket off.) The play is miles away from offering any concrete explanation of what it's all about, but it seems to exercise a similar, disarmingly hypnotic effect.

Jonah and Otto by Robert Holman is booking until the 23rd of November at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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