Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 26 July 2014

Holes

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 16th July – 9th August 2014

The line between humour and horror.

Tim Bano

It starts quite full on: “everyone else is dead”. Four people stand in a raised sandpit. They are the only survivors of a plane crash, stranded on a desert island. From this not unfamiliar premise writer Tom Basden walks a tightrope between humour and horror.

As the characters talk, Basden’s sharp observational skill picks up on the little things that make air travel unique. “Gus broke his arm because his tray table was down” accuses Ian, “It fell down” Gus claims. They have a finite supply of mini Sprites and a choice of chicken chasseur or mushroom risotto. The fact that the characters focus on these in-flight oddities is part of what makes them all so deeply unpleasant. None of them seems to understand the seriousness of their situation. Mathew Baynton as Gus is closer to grief than Ian and Marie; a faraway look settles over his eyes, he is angrier than the others. He clings to a broken radio, trying to make contact with anyone or anything. He shouts “FUCK!” out towards the vast ocean.

Instinct tells us to sympathise with these characters, that they are in the middle of a deep psychological trauma. But they make it so hard. Still, even Marie (Elizabeth Berrington) – hideous, self-obsessed, decked in the expensive dress she snaffled from a dead woman’s case – hits at something sympathy-inducing: she can’t understand that there’s no one in charge.

For ignorant Ian (Daniel Rigby) everything is a competition, an attempt to prove that he’s the man, the leader. Rigby makes Ian brilliantly annoying, he makes his voice louder than the others, his self-assurance is unwavering. But he’s an idiot. Attempts to record all of his knowledge in the blank grids of a bumper Sudoku book are futile (“Pi is not 3. The earth goes around the sun”). Rigby gives Ian at the same time a density and a depth that make him horrible and also completely understandable.

Basden’s characters are tightly drawn and he extracts as much humour as possible from them. It’s only in the disturbing final quarter that Holes starts to forget that it’s a comedy. Otherwise, the humour comes thick, fast and with varying degrees of edginess – from silly wordplay “Why can’t you get pain killers in the jungle? Parrots ate ‘em all” to jibes at Gus’ dead wife. And then, every so often, Basden pulls the rug with lines that whip the audience back to the reality of the on stage situation – “can you bury my parents separately” asks 16 year old Erin.

An uncomfortable tension persists throughout, that if this were all real the behaviour of the characters would be deplorable, unconscionable – but it’s OK, because it’s just a play. Except elements of their situation are real, and recent. Holes was written before the news of flights MH17 and MH370. This prescience makes some of the laughs feel tactless and unnerving: “planes just don’t go missing” says one character.

Rhys Jarman’s set, a large, round sandpit, is a miniaturised representation of the characters’ situation. The actors are on a small island which sits in the middle of the audience, while the characters on a small island surrounded by the corrupting sea. The sand, smooth at the beginning, is rough, peaked and tousled by the end as the turmoil of the characters’ relationships climaxes.

Holes is like one of those teambuilding exercises in extremis: hierarchies form, natural leaders emerge regardless of any incompetencies they may have, the rest of the team tries hard to suppress just how pissed off they are. Basden is, in a sense, diddling us. He has mastered ‘The Apprentice effect’, the feeling that, when we laugh at Lord Sugar’s contestants, we think we’re better than them. Except we’re not. What if the world ended tomorrow and only 4 of us were left? What could we do? Despite, or because of, an eye for the absurdities of our lives Basden hits at something profound and disturbing. Civilisation is a process of aggregation, of the slow and collective accumulation of knowledge. I’ve just about mastered Mail Merge, but I can’t build a house. How would we get clean water, stay sanitary, make pens? How would we live? I think we would just shout. And piss. And die.

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

Holes Show Info


Directed by Philip Breen

Written by Tom Basden

Cast includes Mathew Baynton, Elizabeth Berrington, Daniel Rigby, Sharon Singh

Link http://www.arcolatheatre.com/

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