Review: Wisdom and absurdity make Holes a powerful play in Coventry

Peter Gillam as Ian
Peter Gillam as Ian

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Holes at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

Fantasy islands are all the rage at the moment, though they’ve a long history. Tom Basden’s dystopian comedy, Holes, sees four people stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. Were that not disaster enough, the whole world has exploded around them in a nuclear catastrophe that means they are the last remaining members of the human race. Yet these are no heroes. Some people might remember the TV series Lost, in which a group of people are similarly stranded. They were all, to my recollection, extremely camera friendly types facing dangers from without and well as within. Not so here. In this riotously funny, very British comedy, the characters are more at home in an office than posing valiantly on the beach.

Watching this I could not help thinking of Jean Paul Sartre’s comment that “hell is other people". These are not folk most of us would like to spend much time with on holiday, never mind a desert island for life. They bicker, squabble, seduce and fight with each other. Yet there is a beautiful pathos to their behaviour. They are us, stripped of the comforts of our civilisation.

That characterisation, like the acting, is superb. Gus (Jon Elves) is the cynical realist who falls into a destructive despair unable to envisage a future. His one liners are sharp, beautifully timed. Ian (Peter Gillam) is the one destined from birth “to earn good money in an office,” who beneath the hapless Frank Spencer type comedy discovers a will to go beyond himself in ways he never expected. Marie (Karen Evans) is the former HR executive, single, frustrated, shallow and sexy, whose lack of understanding of their situation highlights the reality of it. And Erin (Kelly Davidson) is the young girl who with teenage wit and wisdom sees through the nonsense of the adults, and on whom the human race of the future comes to depend.

The play is crowded with absurdist jokes and demands a considerable suspension of disbelief. My rational mind could spot numerous unanswered questions. How for example are they unaffected by nuclear fallout? How do they actually feed themselves once the supplies from the plane are gone? How does Gus survive for so long in the pit into which he is cast by Ian (a brilliant piece of stagecraft, by the way).

Yet the play is so thoroughly shot through with warmth and humour that its plot holes and its darker themes pass unnoticed on the night, and are not really the point anyway. This is truth, not fact, and the full house found it hilarious and moving throughout. The beautiful sensitive production and the clever seemingly simple set deserved every jot of approval.

It’s a powerful opening to what promises to be another great season at the Criterion.

* Holes runs until September 7. Call 024 7667 5175 to book.