HOW TO HOLD YOUR BREATH Royal Court, SW1

EUROPE COLLAPSES, DEMONS ROAM FREE, WHO CARES?

Capitalism, consumerism, the banking system, the transactional heartlessness of modern relationships, the illusory comfort of a deluded Europe. Dreadful. We have all had been screwed senseless by a pitiless demon with black semen who didn’t really love us and left hideous red scars on our bare heaving bosom. His un-defiable curse will lead to penury, prostitution, humiliation, closed borders, universal political collapse and shipwreck. Holding our breath won’t help. Shocking business, life. Might as well stick our heads in a bucket.

The frustrating thing about this mess of a play by Zinnie Harris, directed with artfully frightening nightmare inconsequence by Vicky Featherstone amid random furniture, naked shop dummies, an old bath and some posters, is the way that sometimes it threatens to redeem itself. Mainly by starring the matchless, emotionally open, skilful and altogether beguiling Maxine Peake. She plays Dana, who in the rather promising opening scene has just had a one-night stand with Jarron (Michael Shaeffer) a hunky blond who claims to work for the UN. He assumes she is a tart, on the flimsy grounds that she accosted him in a bar dressed in a wispy dress and took him home. When he tries to pay she is affronted, being really an academic studying emotional mutuality in commercial relationships. She thinks their relationship was tender. He puts her right in one of the better speeches “I am unloveable, the unloved…a demon, a thunderclap, I am a nightmare, an underpass in the dark, an alleyway, a bridge that you don’t cross”.

She won’t take his 45 euros (we’re in Berlin) and moves on through bizarre exchanges with another key symbolic figure – a Librarian (Peter Forbes, rather good) who offers self-help books throughout the ensuing collapse of civilization. Demon’s influence, or possibly just the political and financial collapse of Europe, strands her and her pregnant sister in freezing desperation halfway to Budapest while trying to get to a job interview . The borders are closed and they end up huddled on an unseaworthy sea-crossing to somewhere or other. Though she wakes from this nightmare to a reiterated modern life when the demon (he gets all the top lines) recites the books she’ll need now “How to furnish a flat in a weekend…what to say on a first date, to floss or not to floss” etc. Which is almost funny enough to get you out onto Sloane Square without wanting to torch the place.

Not for an unsatisfactory two hours – that’s fair enough, some plays must fail – but for exploiting in a jejune fable not only a superb and subtle actress but a raft of issues about refugees, poverty, Greece, Europe and banking . These really are crying out for intelligent treatment, but not shagging demons, soggy dialogue and outbreaks of manipulative yowling. The worst thing I have to report is that I – the softest, most weepy of theatregoers and emotional mothers, forever mocked for sentimentality by my fierce male colleagues – sat dry-eyed and irritable while Christine Bottomley as the sister delivered a long speech about a dead, maimed, bleeding boy-baby. That tells you something. It wasn’t real, any of it.

box office 0207 565 5000 royalcourttheatre.com to 21 March

rating two 2 meece rating

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