FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Geraldine Alexander, Richard Kent’s pebbly-fringed set design does service for a one interior, Dungeness seaside with prop shifts, Norway exterior and back garden, with a minimal video projection, more a wash. David Plater suffuses the steady beat of a mild Nordic summer everywhere.
Simon Slater’s pointillist score and sound design hints at perpetual slow change. Casting’s by Katie Mozunder.
Andy McDonald’s Head of Production, Jack Boissieux Associate Production Manager, Emma Smith CSM and Alexandra Kettell ASM, Alex Ramsden Chief Electrician, Lisa Aitkin Costumer Supervisor, Jack Baxter’s Production Sound Engineer. Dialect Coach is Jessica Dennis. Till October 9th.
In the 2012 Donmar revival of Robert Holman’s 1987 Making Noise Quietly there’s three tableaux with different people – as is sometimes the way with Holman, who’s also collaborated with other dramatists.
In one Matthew Tennyson – who returns here for his third Holman play – is engaged in a languid encounter as V1s overfly. It’s a mark of Holman that others in that production are in the audience.
The Coronet premiered Holman’s A Breakfast of Eels in 2015, also featuring Tennyson. The Lodger’s a four-hander where all characters fleetingly meet just once, since the third scene’s a fresh encounter in Norway. Tennyson’s Jude – the eponymous lodger – is the constant thread.
There’s Penny Downie’s Esther who’s nurtured him since he was twelve, her imminently arriving sister from Harrogate, Sylvestra Le Touzel’s Dolly, and in the defining third scene we’re introduced to Iniki Mariano’s Anila.
Esther’s and Dolly’s mother has just died at 98, and though there’s little grief, their cultural as well as familial worlds collide. Esther, unmarried successful novelist, Dolly the conventionally married under-fulfilled woman who’s now divorcing her errant husband Derek. Dolly because she’s collected 26 dolls.
Directed by Geraldine Alexander, the evocative Coronet stage circles Richard Kent’s pebbly-fringed set design, which does service for one interior with shabby-genteel table and chairs, even more pebbles at a Dungeness seaside with prop shifts and a hint of the power station projected like a Wadsworth painting; The Norway exterior is all bleach and one bench with a minimal video projection, more a wash. There’s finally a return: Esther’s back garden with added trees wheelbarrow and gardening tools with sliced-open (odourless!) fertiliser and again a place to make tea.
David Plater’s lighting suffuses the steady beat of a mild Nordic summer everywhere. Simon Slater’s pointillist score and sound design hints at perpetual slow change.
Holman slow-builds reveals and fireworks. Good job – when the first strikes – Tennyson’s evanescent Jude is there to throw wine on both women. This first act is mercurial, unexpectedly balletic. A past affair though is just the start, and Downie manages Esther’s sashay of frankness and withdrawal, a writer’s privacy coiled within a copyright grief. It’s one of those roles Holman allots sometimes to older people: inscrutable councillor with a backstory. Downie brings out too that sliver of Esther’s vulnerability, the way she might be broken open.
Le Touzel revels in forthright Dolly on a mission, first to spot (as predicted) floor dust, then hunt it out with a hoover to her sister’s brain. That’s why she’s here and Le Touzel’s more trenchant Dolly peels back more than the shallows she pretends to. Dolly allows Le Touzel to exhibit a glorious register from bossy sister through contained fury to frank admission of her state. Le Touzel’s Dolly is a study in sloughing spikes.
Tennyson inhabits his elusive role with customary elven watchfulness. He’s excellent at sudden authoritative moves belying his still-boyish status, shimmering between it and what he’s in fact achieved by 27. Though he vomits into the sink when briefly by himself before Dolly appears, not everything about how his half-murderous junkie mother forms him is getting explained away by Holman – echoes here in one of the two characters (Tennyson played the other) in A Breakfast of Eels. Broken pasts are once again revisited by venturing north, this time further, to a country Jude’s never been to: Norway, where his once-famous sixties musician grandfather lives in his home village, as a grumpy recluse.
That’s after more reveals when the trio trek to Esther’s Dungeness cottage shadowed by the power station, and fringed with even more pebbles – a typical outdoor Holman scene. Indeed we never go indoors again. There’s an aching outcome to a reveal, though Esther denies Jude being here mostly since he’s twelve is related. Indeed he’s not even the only lodger – there’s a troubled offstage pianist. Then Jude reveals he’s a playwright and a Royal Court debut’s just ended. What? Since this happened to Holman at 22, he could’ve prepared for it quite neatly, since it jumps out too stark and pat.
It’s a degree more improbable than the next scene, set in Norway, which is basically Jude’s play, except that in it, like a waking dream Jude explains in a chance encounter with Mariano’s Anila that he doesn’t think this will end like the play. The lighting here’s exquisite, and indeed there’s a dreamlike element, but by the same token a very real knot of kinship and what we know as GSA, Genetic Sexual Attraction, has reared up. The outfall’s almost a play on its own.
Mariano’s Anila is a shot of life, with light-filled possibility yet firm mind already swerving from her ordained path. Half Indian, half Norwegian/British, Anila’s both more familiar with the landscape yet as lacking rootedness as Jude. Mariano swiftly brings a beating regard to still Tennyson’s angsty Jude and their interaction’s joyous, edgy, heart-warming. Holman convincingly shows trigger-points picked up from Jude’s abuse too. Tennyson and Mariano revel in this exchange.
Holman’s twitch on our thread is to ask if we think this is Jude’s play, or a prophesy of something more real. The scene consciously shimmers with tonal risk-taking. There’s a degree of telling, but as to charges of improbability all I can counter is that two days after I saw this, the decidedly non-socialite son of my cousin got engaged to a Prussian princess. No shared circles, just Brighton. Pinter’s weasel under the cocktail cabinet.
The final scene’s again a shock. As three characters converge on Esther’s garden, full of opened fertiliser bags and planting trees, there’s reflections over kinship, intergenerational love and adoption, grief, jealousy. Some resolutions are tentative, loss still absolute.
Here it’s as if Holman, even more than with A Breakfast of Eels, wants to write a single play but more ambitiously – recklessly – flung wide. It’s not as classically tripartite as Making Noise Quietly with its separate narratives. Here, edges bleed into each other; it’s less neat, more haunting, a touch overlong.
Holman’s refractive dialogue seems more epigrammatic, punchy than A Breakfast of Eels. Indeed it’s some of his most memorable. It’s characters who seem more withdrawn and these lead to a few eddies, particularly with the Norway scene that strikes up incredible possibilities and offstage dramas that never occur – particularly over family responses to GSA.
There’s exquisite moments too, those lines to savour. Just as Le Touzel’s wry Dolly asserts: ‘There’s a need for shallow people in the world. We can’t all be complicated’ she adds, looking at Jude changing: ‘Jude is the first person I’ve told about the violence… I can see his willy.’
In the last scene of that 2012 Donmar revival of Making Noise Quietly, Sarah Kestelman takes a lost young soldier in hand. It’s not just Tennyson returning. Kestelman’s in the audience. Holman has made quiet noise for nearly fifty years: directors, actors, some critics, above all fellow dramatists revere him. Easy to see why, easy to see why Holman, concerned with emotional truth, will always be revived and never win an Olivier.
This isn’t Holman’s finest play, but it contains some of his finest dialogue and at least two singular characters. If you know his work you’ll come. If you just want to find out what a compelling voice Holman has, do visit this exquisite production.