Review – Holes, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2020

84924259_164463171649046_6065657246988107776_nHoles didn’t ring any bells with either Mrs Chrisparkle or me. As is often the case, we had neither heard of, nor read, nor seen either the book or the film that apparently the rest of the world knows about intimately. I’m sure you already know, gentle reader, that Louis Sachar’s 1998 book received wide acclaim, and, according to Wikipedia, so it must be true, has been ranked sixth in a survey to choose the all-time best children’s novels. To which I can only say: Gosh.

the castIt’s the relatively complex story of young Stanley Yelnats who was sent away to a kind of correction camp (it isn’t really a correction camp) for stealing a pair of sneakers (he didn’t steal them) that belonged to a famous baseball player. Stanley believes he comes from a cursed family, because one of his ancestors didn’t keep a promise to an old lady in Latvia. (Stay with me on this). The daily punishment at the camp is to dig holes, five feet wide by five feet deep. According to the mean Mr Sir who supervises the digging, it’s meant to build character. But, in reality, he and his boss The Warden are using the young offenders to dig for treasure that was stolen over a hundred years earlier by Kissin’ Kate Barlow, a sweet lady turned outlaw. Confused? There’s more. In a swipe of coincidence that would make Agatha Christie blush at its outrageousness, our hero Stanley is descended from the man whose briefcase containing title deeds was stolen. NO! Yes. I could go on, but that’s enough for now.

illegal loveFor a young person’s book/film/play, the story grapples with some very difficult and mature themes, from legal injustice to the harsh realities of labour camps, to racially motivated murder and being outcast for having a mixed race relationship – and I can’t argue with the fact that its heart is clearly in the right place. It’s also rather nicely moral – the good guys find wealth and happiness (not that the two necessarily go together of course) and the bad guys get apprehended. Also in its favour is that it tells its story clearly, with its three time threads (today, 1880s Green Lake, early 1800s Latvia) weaving intricately together to make sense of it all.

illegal loveHowever, for me, this play commits the worst crime that you should never, ever commit in the theatre. It’s boring. Sorry, there’s no other way of saying it. It starts reasonably promisingly, and the last ten minutes of the first Act perk up a little, and then last ten minutes of the entire play provide an enjoyable denouement. But everything else in between is as dull as ditchwater. With a full audience peppered very liberally with, I would guess, 8 to 12 year olds, at whom this play would be targeted, and who normally whoop and cheer a lot in the theatre, you would not believe the muted response applause as the curtain came down at the end of the first Act.

the puppetsEven the set and sound design are like a game of two halves. Simon Kenny’s backdrop – a wooden fence that splits into two to reveal a rugged skyline is a thing of beauty; and the wooden barrels that represent the holes are a clever touch that solve what is otherwise a tricky problem for a designer. But the rest of the props, furniture and, I felt, the puppets, are meagre and unimaginative, rather crudely constructed and, for me, lacking in that special magical animation that brings a puppet to life. There are a couple of scenes – at the beginning of both Acts – where the cast play instruments and dance, which gives you hope for plenty of live music distractions. But whenever music is deployed in the play outside of those scenes, it is recorded, slightly too loud and artificial-sounding, and doesn’t really add much to the production.

Stanley and ZeroI think the main issue – for us at least – is that there wasn’t a moment early on in the play where we connected with it. I can only assume that we the audience should be raging at the injustice of Stanley’s being apprehended and found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, so that we firmly take his side in all the subsequent experiences at the camp. But it’s not as simple as that. The trouble is, Stanley himself doesn’t seem remotely concerned by his incarceration; he simply blames it on his ancestors. And through much of the first Act he is bullied and doesn’t stand up for himself – and rather than feel sorry for him, I found him irritatingly spineless for constantly taking the blame for things that others did. I didn’t sympathise or empathise; he just annoyed me. And if Stanley doesn’t care about what’s happening to him, well, frankly, why should we?

Stanley's showerSo, with a main character who is a bit of a weed and a surrounding cast of bullies, there is no one with whom we can identify. True, the stage does brighten up whenever Rhona Croker’s Warden comes on, with her scarcely veiled cruelty and threatening use of excuse me? – and when she gets her come-uppance at the end, it’s very satisfying. Leona Allen’s Zero is the only character to provoke any real interest; the only one to make some kind of a journey, the only one whose kind streak makes them appealing. The growing friendship between Zero and Stanley could have been interesting if there had been more opportunity to develop it – but they don’t make the most of it. The other performances are all very competent and proficient, but, at the end of the day, they couldn’t breathe much life into this rather stale and sterile text.

ArmpitI just couldn’t connect with this play. Perhaps it was due to the structure; whenever the story progressed a stage, we went either forward or back to another time thread where we had to pick up the tale where we had previously left it; as a result, although the structure is clever, it kills dramatic tension. I had to screw my courage to the sticking post and resist the temptation to leave at the interval – and I’m glad I stayed because the last ten minutes, when all the threads come together, are by far the most entertaining. But it needs more – a whole lot more – to elevate it out of a general sense of meh.

The tour continues to Nottingham, Coventry, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Plymouth, Liverpool, High Wycombe, Blackpool, Wolverhampton and Canterbury. But it wasn’t for me.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Two stars are better than one