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Holes (Arcola Theatre)

Tom Basden's prescient play at the Arcola feels like a show of two halves

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Daniel Rigby as Ian and Mathew Baynton as Gus
© Idil Sukan

Flight BA043 to Australia has crashed as a result of supposed terrorist activity. The only four survivors are left stranded on a remote tropical island; they wait to be rescued, or do they wait to die?

Despite the unfortunate parallels that this play draws with recent plane disasters, it, surprisingly, has the comedic brute force to dispel any awkwardness created by lines such as "planes just don't go missing" and "why would terrorists take down a commercial plane in the middle of nowhere?"

The play was written back in 2010, so the subject matter can be excused on the grounds of life uncannily imitating art. And it has already performed with success up in Edinburgh, so now the production tries its hand with audiences in the circus-like Arcola Tent.

Set in the round on a circus drum full of sand, the survivors attempt to make sense of what has happened. Of the four surviving passengers, three are work colleagues and one is a sixteen year old girl whose parents have both died in the crash. There's not much time to mourn for the dead, though; what with the distractions of looting luggage, salvaging the best of the airline mini-snacks, and trying to write a (hackneyed) version of the encyclopaedia before they forget everything they know.

During the show's first half, you're swept along by a tide of jokes. There's the exquisitely irritating character of HR manager, Marie, who knows very little but likes to talk a lot, and who takes particular pleasure in the Louboutin heels she swipes from luggage of an unknown deceased. Then there's Ian, a character very much influenced by The Office, who sees this as his moment to become the authentic (read: barbaric) man he has always craved to be.

The final work colleague is Gus, who appears to be the most normal but, unfortunately, also the most cynical; he rejects Ian's plan for survival and takes to the duty-free booze and cigarettes looted from the plane. Gus' role as antagonist is played superbly by Mathew Baynton (known to many from The Wrong Mans and Horrible Histories) with his caustic remarks being delivered with spleen for the colleagues who can't see beyond office politics, even as they stand to be the last four humans on the planet.

It's Sharon Singh (as the orphaned Erin) who has the hardest part to play; distinctly lacking in the comic ribaldry of the others, it is her character's role to take the play into its second act and show their attempts at saving the human race.

However, it's the second act that brings this show down from a flourishing four star performance to a three star mixed bag. With the first act providing non-stop laughs, it makes for a rather abrupt change to come back after the interval into a dystopian vision of a post-apocalyptic world. Whilst it is the role of comedy to make serious comment on the world around us, suddenly changing tack part way through a show means that it's easy to feel stranded in the structural holes of the play's second half.

Having said that, the comedy of the first half is so well written and so well performed, that it is worth seeing for this alone.

Holes runs at the Arcola Theatre until 9 August 2014