Alice Palmer, C South, David Lynch and Mark Frost, Edinburgh Fringe, Holes by Tom Basden, Jack Smail, James Ryley, Jonathan Canlas, Keele Drama Society, Liz Smart, Lyons Productions, Rebecca Jones, Sophy Dexter, Surrealism, The Spaces on the Mile, Theatre Review, Tom Basden, Will Jones
This year I had resolved not to review any second-hand contemporary theatre. I’ve finally put my foot in it, however, with a random unscheduled stop at C South. My ticket was an impulse purchase and so I had no ken that “Holes by Tom Basden” had premiered both in London and Edinburgh in 2013. I thought that the writing was very fresh and brave for a new student production, and then, subsequently, I thought that it was conventional and unrisky for a professional import. So yes, this is how my own bias works. It is, of course, one of the riches of the Fringe to see the newest theatre, a couple of years later, in, say, a small, suburban Edinburgh church. The show today was busy, as if this play has been made finally accessible to latter-day groundlings in the pit.
“Holes” tells the story of a passenger plane that goes AWOL, just as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had done, but a glance at the chronology shows the play to be premonitory rather than reflective. The jokes are coming thick and fast as soon as the plane is down, and we surely know everything about the vacuous Marie (Sophy Dexter) as soon as we hear that she is an HR manager. The humour is sharp and relaxed at the same time, and it is often nicely visual. After retrieving a child’s bucket and spade from the dispersed luggage, Ian (Jack Smail) admits that this is for the mass grave. Unfortunately, the deeper waters are disappointingly shallow. They wash in quickly once Marie, the funniest character, has died like Mercutio half way through the story. The awaiting moral degeneracy on the island is clichéd and Ian’s amazement that television has been “uninvented,” because none of the surviving humans know how it works, is perhaps not quite so profound as this play thinks it is.
For Lyons Productions, an outfit from Cambridge, “Holes” is a good opportunity to showcase some excellent comic delivery. As is common with this sort of show, though, the production is too respectful towards the original script. There needn’t be ninety minutes of this play and they could have junked some of the singing and melodrama. It is a shame that they could have not additionally hammered out a more interesting ending. “Holes” does not so much conclude as fade away, without achieving any comic peak or original moral.
Keele Drama Society work hard and, in the two shows that I have seen by them, they are never boring. Their theatre is nonetheless always too innocent or even immature. It typically lacks a pinch of something profound, some sexual edge or degree of danger, which would lift it out of energetic amateurism and into more empyrean splendours.
This is the aesthetic of the whole ensemble rather than anything which can be laid at a single writer’s door. Huw Brentnall’s “Quiz,” which Keele Drama Soc brought last year to the Surgeons’ Hall, and James Ryley’s “A Waiting Room,” which they bring this year to the Spaces on the Mile, are kindred farces which are both strangely automated in their delivery and not at heart comedic. “Quiz” had reminded me of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 1992 sitcom On the Air, but with “A Waiting Room” we are squarely back in the dreamscape from the duo’s 1990 surrealist soap opera Twin Peaks. There is the same black-and-white patterned flooring and the same waiting-room seating. With the exaggerated wackiness, the coffee which never arrives, and the infuriating absence of an exit, this venue is most like the Black Lodge from the Twin Peaks finale.
Karen (Liz Smart) is stranded in the waiting room. She is regaled with the various over-fabulous characters who frequent or supervise the room, the funniest of whom are a diabolical elderly couple (Rebecca Jones and Jonathan Canlas). There is a guffawing Monty Python silliness to everything, but true surrealism, rather paradoxically, requires more reality. There needs to be blood and horror and flouted taboos. When this play tries to be disgusting, in a scene when two of the characters swap their chewing gum, it is dabbling tastefully in the obscene rather than getting stuck in and out of control. So “A Waiting Room” is ultimately, one fears, just too happy. Even a later attempt to underpin the surrealism with the revelation of Karen’s dementia comes across as sentimental rather than realistically tragic.
If respectable surrealism was really a thing, then this play gets as far as it can with such an aesthetic. There is, however, so much more to both life and theatre.