Yorkshire playwright Robert Holman has had his work staged at a number of major theatre companies since he started out in the early 1970s – including the Royal Court, the RSC and Chichester; it has been in the West End too. This has happened without him impinging much on public consciousness. And you feel he rather likes it that way.
His publisher has called him “the play-writing world’s best-kept secret”, and Holman himself, 70 next year, has said he doesn’t much care what other people think of the work – an entrenched take it or leave it attitude. His output isn’t easy to encapsulate.
For his admirers, and that includes a lot of playwrights, he dares to tease out the poetry in the ordinary, lending weight to minutiae. To his detractors – and critics often fulfil that role – the outsiderly quality of his characters, slow-burn narratives and oblique way with dialogue can savour of irksome affectation.
I find myself tilting between the twin poles of mild appreciation and modest weariness at his latest, newly installed at the Coronet, Notting Hill – a theatre that should win an award for its cosily bohemian bar and needs a rethink on its overly cramped seating.
It might sound like a thriller – witness the various film iterations of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger, inspired by the killing spree of Jack the Ripper – but its titular character is the epitome of benign diffidence. Twentysomething Jude Twelvetrees was rescued from a hideously abusive childhood and raised by a novelist called Esther in genteel Little Venice. He’s a budding playwright though keeps news of that tightly lidded.
When Esther’s sister Dolly arrives from Harrogate – in mourning for their old mother, who was neglected by her sibling, and newly separated from her philandering husband (who it turns out once bedded Esther) – the stage looks set for bitter recrimination. But though there is anger, even a slap in the face – an articulate wistfulness prevails.
“She’ll arrive like a gale because she always does,” Penny Downie’s wafting Esther advises Matthew Tennyson’s pale, meek, watchful youth. But Sylvestra Le Touzel’s Dolly is pained and self-contained – is Esther wrong about her, Dolly unpredictable, or did it just sound like a neat remark? Holman has talked of assembling plays from writing scraps, and there’s a tombola air to some of the chat; you’re not sure what to hold on to, what to discard. There’s craft, wit, yes, but also bags of self-awareness.
Geraldine Alexander offers committed, attentive but not especially forceful direction – some of the confab sounds so low-heat it’s as if the underlying spark has gone out. Initially engrossed, I caught the play’s drift but found myself also drifting off.
Tennyson, a favoured Holman actor – he was in the recent film version of Making Noise Quietly – has a feline capacity to draw attention when doing nothing. But even he struggles to uphold a baseline plausibility, as the action shifts to Dungeness, and then Norway, where Jude tries to track down his 1960s-rockstar grandfather and encounters a mysterious young woman called Anila (Iniki Mariana).
The set design, evoking a shabby-chic kitchen interior, the shingly expanse of Dungeness and shimmery Norwegian lake is splendid. The lighting wouldn’t look out of place in a West End show. Sylvestra Le Touzel caused a press stir when she had to abandon the show at its original press night last week, having been affected by some personal news. An unfortunate episode, but perhaps an inadvertent pointer to what the play is missing – for all its storyline ambushes, a capacity to make you sit up and take note.
Until Oct 9. Tickets: 020 3642 6606; thecoronettheatre.comInternet Explorer Channel Network