German Skerries by Robert Holman, Orange Tree Theatre, 5 March 2016

The questions Daisy and I debated over our Spanish dinner at Don Fernando after this short play were “why?” questions. Primarily, “why on earth did Paul Miller choose to revive this particular play?”

Yes, the Orange Tree rubric  about this play – click here – says that Simon Stephens reveres Robert Holman. Any friend of Simon Stephens blah blah…

…but this play, which won awards and all sorts in the late 1970s, must have either come from a lean year (1977? – I don’t think so) or simply aged badly, as some plays do. It simply didn’t resonate for either of us.

Some of it felt like writing by numbers to me – the birdwatchers spot a cormorant impaling itself on some stray wire, presumably the wire is there because of the industrial activity out by the skerries. “Oh dear”, I thought, “one of the characters is going to cop an industrial injury before the 80 minutes is up.”

Cormorants on Lake Nicaragua skerries
Cormorants on Lake Nicaragua skerries

It didn’t help that I have a slight cold (or do I mean man flu?) on our recent return from Nicaragua – from 30 Centigrade to 30 Fahrenheit overnight is a bit of a shock to the system. I did a pretty good job of stifling the sniffling and coughing, despite the cast members smoking pretty constantly and the smoke machine designed to make the night scenes seem misty being located right by my seat! Thank goodness for the trusty bottle of water when you need it most.

We had other why questions; such as why did the young man stay up by the bird watching hut leaving his young wife to take the injured man to hospital alone? There was a bicycle in the hut which seemed to have been left there for a purpose (perhaps that purpose) but the bike was ignored when crisis struck. Perhaps a change of heart from the writer, left hanging like…

The subject matter had the ability to resonate – ordinary folk in Teeside, caught up in the late 1970s industrial changes and disquiet…but by gosh this is a slow and dull piece. The play had only the faintest echo of the power possible in similar small northern town microscope pieces, such as Stockport by Simon Stephens. Yes, I can see where the influence on Stephens might have come; yes I understand that the industries that were controversially established on Teeside in the 1970s are controversially shutting down now. But 40 years on, leave it to Stephens…or revive a Stephens, don’t try and revive this dated and clumsy piece.

Michael Billington and his good lady were in the house tonight sitting opposite us. Billington is a great supporter of the Orange Tree but I suspect he’ll struggle to give this piece a favourable review – it will be interesting to see what he writes about it.

Daisy struggled to stay awake and was fearful that she might have nodded off while the young man character was bird watching in our direction through his binoculars. I don’t think she nodded off at those particular junctures, nor do I think that Michael Billington nodded off at the times when the binos were pointing his way, although I cannot vouch for the wakefulness of Billington’s whole evening.

We too are long-term supporters of the Orange Tree and think that Paul Miller’s tenure so far has had more rock than a massive outcrop of skerries, but this play missed the mark for us by a long way. We know that financial pressure is a major factor, so these joint productions are doubtless the way. Perhaps this piece will work better in Northern towns (although frankly I doubt it).  But in any case, I’d prefer to see more risk in joint productions – better the odd miss that has given a young writer or an emerging theatre troupe a chance, than a revival miss that leaves us simply asking, “why?”.

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