How to Hold Your Breath** (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: February 12, 2015 in Theatre

how to hold your breath

It may well be that the sternest test of great actors is not how they perform in good productions, but in bad ones. Maxine Peake, prolific on television, here makes a rare appearance on the London stage, arriving some distance behind her soaring reputation and it is her presence alone which lights up this abstract mess of a play. On stage for the entire 115 minutes, her cropped, blonde, boyish hairstyle the same as for her Hamlet in Manchester recently, she exudes strength, vulnerability, joy and pain in a performance of supreme authority and she is simply mesmerising throughout. She plays Dana, a business consultant peddling customer service theories, who beds Jarron (Michael Schaeffer) and refuses to accept his insulting offer of 45 Euros in payment for her “services”; this turns out to be a bad move when marks appear on her body and she concludes that Jarron is in fact the Devil. So, phase one of the play sees a light romantic comedy turn into a supernatural thriller. In phase two, Dana, still haunted by reminders of the refused 45 Euros, embarks with her pregnant sister (Christine Bottomley) on an overland trek across Europe with the local librarian (Peter Forbes) in tow, dispensing self-help manuals to meet every need. This phase sees a road trip drama, spiked with touches of absurdism, added to the mix. In phase three, a major banking collapse results in the whole of European civilisation disintegrating in a matter of days and we now have a post-apocalyptic nightmare, culminating in the savage irony of European refugees escaping by boat to Africa. So what messages is writer Zinnie Harris trying to convey in this mishmash of genres? Is she saying that the stability of European society depends entirely on the servility of women? Or is she pointing out the slenderness of the thread that supports the richness of modern European lifestyles, separating the First World from the Third? Her play has a plethora of interesting ideas, but they all seem to hover in mid air without ever landing on any specific targets. It is a play that never rings true as serious drama and all attempts at surreal comedy are thwarted by writing that lacks both wit and invention and by a leaden production, directed by Vicky Featherstone. Chloe Lambert’s jumbled sets do not help either, supporting little that seems relevant to the happenings on stage. This is a production that will remain memorable only for its luminous star performance, but, as Peake herself would have informed Manchester audiences last year, “the play’s the thing…” and, sadly, not even she can do enough to salvage this one.

Performance date: 11 February 2015

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