Wednesday 4th April 2018 at Nottingham Playhouse.
Louis Sachar’s modern teen fiction classic has lain dormant in many a heart and mind since becoming a staple of secondary school curriculums. This production from Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company directed by Adam Penford reminds us why this story remains a steadfast presence in memory. When poor Stanley Yelnats is sent to a correctional camp in the desert following a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time incident (a spot of bad luck which stems from an old family curse), he finds himself in the company of some big kids with even bigger characters. X-Ray, Magnet, Zero, Armpit and Stanley must dig a hole each day to ‘build character’, but of course there’s more to this than shovelling sand… The mean old warden is looking for something and she is a swaggering tyrant lording over the camp and its seven inmates and staff. Intertwined with scenes of daily hole digging and jostling in the ranks, scenes from the past which unpick the origins of Stanley’s curse appear and disappear like swift and vivid dreams until past and present combine for a neat and tidy finish.Stanley arrives on stage amid scenes of bullying at school before swiftly being bundled off to Camp Greenlake as a wrongly accused youth – there he finds further challenges from ruffians eager to secure a place high up in the pecking order. With the manual labour and constant sun causing further torment, Stanley finds himself tested by both boys and the elements daily until there is naturally a gradual acceptance. Chris Ashby’s Stanley is at first glance a more youthful take on Forest Gump; with a thick American drawl and an emphatic goofiness, Ashby’s characterisation has the audience on the side of this comical protagonist resigned to a future of ill fate. X-Ray is the current top dog at the camp and Ammar Duffus’ forceful characterisation lands the character somewhere between intimidatingly mean and super cool. Armpit is equally stand-offish to the newcomer but Henry Mettle’s performance offers a gentler image of a rival than Duffus. Safiyya Ingar’s performance as Magnet is perhaps one of the best performances in the production as a whole; comically scrappy with a Mowgli charm which frequently draws attention even when in the background. It’s impressive that Ingar manages to make Magnet likeable despite some mean spirited moments directed as poor Stanley. It is the perpetually undermined and underestimated Zero who really steals hearts here though and Pepter Lunkuse’s performance earnestly captures both the sadness and the frustration of this young boy with such a cruel background.Providing a constant dark and ominous cloud over the camp and boys is The Warden. Kacey Ainsworth flexes her villain muscles comfortably in the role and she is particularly brilliant during her desperate final scenes. John Elkington’s Mr Sir is the kind of cruel adult abusing a position of power perfect for a teen drama like this and he is equally despisable as the lecherous Sheriff who so gleefully torments a young sweet teacher. Kissin’ Kate Barlow is that young tormented teacher who is led into a life of crime and murder as a result of a heartbreaking experience (a western Elphaba of sorts, minus the singing and green skin…) Elizabeth Twells plays the part to perfection, striding from position as a firm Miss Honey over to an immovable broken soul who feels no remorse. Yet while the grown ups are by and large there to be somewhere on the scale of disliked to loathed, as with most successful coming of age tales, they also provide some good fodder for comedy and slapstick in a production which balances light and dark very well.Camp Greenlake is conjured in all its barren misery by Simon Kenny’s sparse set designs with the approach to the vital holes being dug being simple but creative. Onto this bare space in the permanent hue of sun-soaked sand arrive simple set pieces which are easily travelled and which mark some fluent set and scene changes which give the production a clear polish. Quirky use of miniatures offer allusions to journeys and threats in ways which raise smiles but bypass grander stage and set design – a toy school bus is trundled over the stage for instance to allude to Stanley’s journey to the camp, while a dog sized donkey model or a cactus upon a wheeled platform offer a nicely tongue in cheek approach to capturing the sweeping needs of Sachar’s novel. Some more stylised elements of staging and set are not so successful – with the awkwardly clunky rotation of ‘God’s thumb’ being one particular anomaly. Lively melodies from Adam P McCready keep us ever in mind of the fact that this is a sprightly coming of age tale while the creations of puppet director and co-designer Matthew Forbes offer mildly threatening or amusing visions of desert creatures (the rattle snake being by far my favourite!)Holes gets a relatively faithful adaptation for the stage here with some nicely selective stylistic choices and those who enjoyed the novel in their English lessons will surely not be disappointed. That said, those new to the story will find plenty to like with this production, not least a bounding bunch of youngsters who offer up a great cross-section of youth while providing some gentle life lessons. Sachar’s novel does offer glimpses of a grown up world and those mature themes are not discarded or short changed here – Zero’s history is given due attention and the hideous prejudice involved in Kate Barlow’s tragedy is also played out with just enough grim realism to keep those moments of grit as effective as they are in the original. Perhaps what I liked most about this production is its preservation of the text as a drama with a good dose of light heartedness and small moments of comedy rather than making it a twee comedy or a lively adventure. I’m a firm believer that not all theatre pitched at young audiences needs to be geared too heavily towards infantilising comedy or CBBC grins, so this production certainly delivers for me!
Holes plays at Nottingham Playhouse until April 22nd 2018 and you can find tickets here.