The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Theatre Spring 2012
You have to tune your audience radar to its most sensitive for Robert Holman's 1987 evening of three short plays, because Holman writes with an almost Pinteresque allusiveness, presenting encounters in which almost nothing happens visibly but a great deal seems to be happening between the silences.
At his best, you come away with the sense that you've just been told more in twenty minutes or so than another playwright could communicate in hours.
By far the most successful of the three is the first, Being Friends, a chance encounter in 1944 between two men unlikely to meet except by chance. One is a Quaker university student working on a farm in lieu of military service, the other a Firbankian aesthete.
At first treating each other as exotic animals, they imperceptibly allow amusement to progress through interest to something like friendship or possibly sexual attraction. Holman doesn't tell us what is beginning here, but by the end of the play we know something is beginning, and we like the two characters enough to wish them well.
Director Peter Gill allows Matthew Tennyson to be too much of a flaming queen for my taste or for the play's good, since the easy low comedy distracts from the focus on an unexpected and undefined connection being made, but Jordan Dawes nicely underplays the other lad.
In the second play, Lost, a naval officer visits the mother of a friend killed in the Falklands, only to be confused when he's not met by grief. The friend, we learn, disowned his family a long time ago, and the mother can hardly find cause to mourn a son who has been dead to her for years.
Through the mother's mix of anger and pain, and the visitor's embarrassment and confusion, we catch glimpses of a family that fell apart for reasons no one can really remember and perhaps didn't understand at the time.
This is Holman at his most Pinter-like, saying as much in the silences as the words, and director Gill guides Susan Brown and John Hollingworth to sensitive and evocative performances.
The longest and least successful of the three is Making Noise Quietly, in part because it is the most complex and ambitious. An AWOL soldier saddled with the autistic son of his ex-wife encounters a German businesswoman and Holocaust survivor.
The soldier loves the boy but doesn't have the tools to help him, and his frustration makes him angry at himself for failure, an anger he takes out on the child. The woman tries to help both of them without being intrusive, but has to cope with her own re-awakened demons as she does.
Small steps forward are followed by small relapses, and the play ends not far from where it began, with neither hope nor despair.
One weakness in this play, compared to the others, is that everything is spelled out openly rather than left for us to discover, so there is little to draw us into it. But even more harming is that it is trying to do too much at once, flying off in too many thematic and emotional directions without satisfyingly exploring any of them.
Where the other two plays give you the very satisfying sense of understanding more than you realised you were being told, this one gives you lots of information but does too little with it.
There can be no criticism of Ben Batt and the always reliable Sara Kestelman, who bring reality to characters one can only wish were better written.
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