For Adam Penford’s second production as artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse, he has taken the bold choice to produce a family show on the main stage, offering something mid-year for the theatre’s loyal panto following. Yet Louis Sachar’s Holes is no pantomime; amid the humour and team-building is a darkly terrifying alt-universe with Dahlian overtones, where young children are forced to dig infinite numbers of holes for a Warden (Kacey Ainsworth), who maims her underlings by scratching them with poisoned nail varnish. And in Penford’s hands, the horror and humour coalesce in an exploration of memory and inherited guilt.
The palindromic Stanley Yelnats (Chris Ashby) is wrongly accused of stealing a famous baseball player’s trainers, and immediately sentenced to 18 months hard labour digging holes at a labour camp. There’s a weird thematic memory of Penford’s last production, Wonderland, as the boy is introduced to the rules and rituals of his new workplace and then sets to digging with his new team. The group of five boys bake under the Texas sun (populated with Matthew Forbes’s beautifully realised puppets of lizards and rattlesnakes), with tensions flaring as the old hands test the new boy.
Notwithstanding the variable accents (when, oh when, will English productions simply trust an audience to accept that we’re in the US, without forcing actors to put on an unnecessary extra vocal mask?), the boys are excellent. Safiyya Ingar is MVP as the effusive, fun-loving Magnet; Henry Mettle is a formidable but ultimately gentle Armpit; and Ammar Duffus seems initially reasonable as X-Ray before quietly and unsettlingly extorting Stanley’s privileges from him. The bullies strike an ideal balance between cruel and sympathetic; their actions come from the hardened life they currently lead, and play as survival instincts rather than maliciousness.
In a brilliant coup, Penford invites his audience to read the actors’ bodies as gender-blind, with women and men playing the boys, but makes no reference to race until late on. When Zero (Pepter Lunkuse) offers to dig Stanley’s daily hole for him in return for lessons in how to read, the deal plays as reciprocal; but suddenly the bullies turn on the arrangement, calling out the fact that the only white boy is now sitting back while a black boy labours on his behalf.
The fact that Ashby is the only white actor on stage apart from the overseers suddenly becomes apparent, and Mettle and Duffus ram home the optics with a beautifully pitched pastiche of the willing servant: “May I please dig your hole, sir?” The ugliness of the moment, and of Stanley’s obliviousness to what is happening, is only compounded when the camp’s counsellor (Edward Harrison) turns up and invites Stanley to retaliate against Magnet; a white man orders a white boy to assault a black boy (played by a woman of colour). The production handles the racial politics lightly, and the inferences come through all the more clearly for it.
It becomes clear that the group are digging, not to build character, but because the Warden is looking for something, and her increasing mania for finding the buried treasure leads to such dark moments as her scraping Mr Sir’s (John Elkington) face with her poisoned fingernails. As the plot thickens, Penford introduces the back story of these characters’ ancestors – first Stanley’s great-grandfather (Harrison) being cursed by a Latvian gypsy (a hilarious Ainsworth again) for failing to meet a promise to carry her up a mountain, and later the story of the dried up lake that the boys are digging in.
A town lynched a black man (Greg Lockett) for daring to kiss a white woman (Elizabeth Twells) beloved of the lake’s owner; the woman in turn became an outlaw, Kissin’ Kate, who takes vengeance and, before she dies, hides the treasure stolen from a man who happens to be Stanley’s grandfather. The flashbacks are full of invention – pink balloons stand for pigs; an elaborate hoedown kicks off the second act; a slow-motion boat ramming creates an evocative parting scene for the doomed lovers. The memories frequently interweave with the digging, aligning the boys’ labour with that of their forebears, and making clear that Stanley is literally digging into his past.
The central relationship between Zero and Stanley is moving, as the two boys bond over word sounds and, later, their attempts to survive in the desert. Despite the somewhat ludicrous plot machinations needed to explain their secret connection, Ashby and Lunkuse sell the relationship, leading to a rousing climax as (with the help of Twells’s hysterical lawyer) the two best the evil grown-ups. Elkington, Harrison and Ainsworth are eminently hissable as the committed villains, especially in the final scenes, and thoroughly enjoy chewing the scenery. But the production’s strength is in establishing the real, quieter stakes underpinning the broader plucky-kids-vs-evil-adults structure, making clear that a family show doesn’t need to shy away from big questions.
Holes is at Nottingham Playhouse until April 22nd. For more details, click here.