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A still, beautiful forgotten classic from the underrated Robert Holman
There are no loud moments in this early play by Robert Holman, which is receiving its first major revival since it debuted in 1977. It washes over you, like a ripple moving outwards into the distance. It has a gentle calmness, a melancholic undertow, that seems to freeze time.
A birdwatching site overlooking the North Sea is the setting. Jack (George Evans) is young and restless – recently married to Carol (Katie Moore) and pining for the future. One day, in a break between work shifts, he meets Martin (Howard Ward), a teacher about to go on holiday. The casual intersection of their lives becomes our vantage point on the changing world around them.
Holman is having a bit of a resurgence right now, following the acclaim that greeted his latest play, ‘Breakfast of Eels’. Maybe because his work tends to chronicle the quiet moments, what passes in the pauses between people, he’s – undeservedly – slipped under the radar. But his un-showiness isn’t fuzzy (without giving too much away, there’s a death here). His grip on human nature is tender, but it’s firm.
While ‘German Skerries’ lacks the quiet devastation of ‘Eels’, the portrait Holman paints in peripheral strokes of a rural life being inescapably altered by the privatisation of industry builds mournfully. Birds can no longer land on the offshore rocks, the skerries, because of boiling water piped from a nearby power station. It’s the turn of history, as viewed through binoculars.
Director Alice Hamilton – who’s previously staged the work of Barney Norris, another thoughtful chronicler of the sad detail of everyday lives – brings a hushed timelessness to Holman’s words. Silence speaks volumes here, with the fluttering of fluted bird song bringing a kind of serenity to a production where the actors – performing in the round – look outwards.
The performances match the low-key pitch. Evans brings an effectively jittery quality to Jack, while Moore makes Carol as strong as the land on which he sits and daydreams. Ward, meanwhile, imbues Martin with a fussiness tempered with openness. Here, as is often the case with Holman, distance is bridged by conversation – small kindnesses breaking through the loss.