Saturday, 21 March 2015

Theatre review: A Breakfast of Eels

I don't think I can be blamed for approaching Robert Holman's plays with a little trepidation. It's not the fact that they're largely impenetrable; but while his thoughtful poetic works can sometimes be moving there's always the risk that, like Making Noise Quietly, they'll tip over into the downright boring. Fortunately his latest work falls into the former category and is, for my money*, the most entertaining of his plays I've seen. Holman's written A Breakfast of Eels specifically for its two stars, and it's the second role he's tailor-made for Andrew Sheridan (the role of Jonah in Jonah and Otto, which Alex Waldmann recently played in the revival, was the first.) Sheridan has an older-than-his-years quality - I've always thought his face looks like it belongs in the 1940s - while Matthew Tennyson, whom Holman wanted to work with again after Making Noise Quietly, has the disconcerting quality of seeming like an overgrown child, to the point of playing Puck as a creepy toddler a couple of years ago.

Holman seems to have seen these opposite, complementary qualities as well considering the characters he's created for them. Francis (Sheridan) and his younger brother Penrose (Tennyson) have just buried their father, a wealthy lawyer who's left them a huge but slowly crumbling mansion in Highgate. Their mother's been dead for years, and now they have to explore what their relationship is with just the two of them left.

But this is a much bigger and odder adjustment than it initially seems. Very early on, Holman hangs a lantern on the two actors' very different accents when he has them correct each other's pronunciation, but six months on the details of the will prompt Penrose to confront Francis with the fact that they're not really brothers. In fact their relationship is very unequal, but Penrose doesn't want this to affect how they've always behaved around each other, and has a fairly drastic solution in mind.

Robert Hastie's production is measured and although very little technically happens, he uses the story's structure - every scene features a revelation about the past that subtly or drastically alters the pair's relationship - to make it clear that actually a hell of a lot is going on. I'm still not as sold on Tennyson as a performer as so many people seem to be - he always seems self-conscious to me and his somewhat alien quality doesn't lend itself to much variety - but inevitably in a role that was written for him this isn't a problem. In his quiet way I find Sheridan much better - of course he's also got the more unusual arc here: Francis has cast himself as a father figure all his life and as he gets older has to give it up, as opposed to Penrose's story of leaving behind childish things. He, Holman and Hastie also offer up one of the most understatedly accurate looks at depression I've seen on stage.

Ben Stones' raked set of their late father's library has to double as various outdoor locations as well, but the books are always visible at the back. It's part of the sort of dreamlike quality that makes A Breakfast of Eels, like a lot of Holman's work, feel simultaneously like poetic fantasy and gritty realism. (I'm not sure which category the word "cocksmitten" falls into, but it felt to me like a nice companion word to Alan Bennett's famous "cuntstruck.") People who never get on with the writer's work probably won't be swayed by this but for those who find him hit-and-miss this is one for the hit column.

A Breakfast of Eels by Robert Holman is booking until the 11th of April at The Print Room.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

*a decent wodge of my money in point of fact, The Print Room being one of the most expensive fringe theatres, with some of the most uncomfortable seats

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