Writer: Louis Sachar
Director: Adam Penford
Reviewer: Dave Smith
Having got his tenure as Artistic Director at Nottingham Playhouse off to a solid start with local mining paean Wonderland, Adam Penford here significantly raises the bar with this unendingly inventive and entertaining adaptation of Louis Sachar’s modern classic novel Holes.
This is a clever and intelligently directed combination of humour, silliness, puppetry, message, music and energy, served up by a mostly young cast playing a variety of roles spanning time, continents and accents. In a programme note, Penford says he chose Holes for his opening season to offer something to the annual panto crowd; those of a nervous disposition should not be discouraged, this offers as much for the older theatregoer as it does the ‘young adult’ audience at which the original novel was aimed, and considerably more than for the more typically pre-teen panto crowd.
Stanley Yelnats IV (Chris Ashby) has been wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of sports shoes once owned by a famous baseball player and has been sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention facility located in a sterile desert where the main dangers include the heat of the sun and deadly yellow-spotted lizards. That’s typical for the Yelnats, a family cursed for generations by bad luck thanks to Stanley’s “no-good-dirty-rotten pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”. Every day, at the behest of the Warden (Kacey Ainsworth), each inmate of Camp Green Lake must dig a hole five feet wide and five feet deep, apparently in order to build character, and report (with the added potential bonus of a day off) if they find anything interesting. That the camp has been built in the area where notorious 19th-century outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow hid her ill-gotten gains (including what she stole from Stanley’s Great Grandfather, Stanley Yelnats I) may not be a coincidence…
Nominal star Kacey Ainsworth is clearly relishing the opportunity to play a baddie, yet, like local panto favourite John Elkington (principally as the Warden’s right-hand man Mr Sir), has to take a back seat to the younger members of the cast who steal the show entirely.
Chris Ashby (also strongly featured in the aforementioned Wonderland) is a likeably goofy Stanley, not so much of a hero – or even anti-hero, as suggested by Penford in the same programme note – more just a sympathetic everyman caught up in strange circumstances by misfortune (and possibly an old Latvian curse). His ‘friends’ at Camp Green Lake, each with their own camp nickname, include short-sighted gang leader X-Ray (Ammar Duffus), cheekily irrepressible Magnet (Safiyya Ingar) and Armpit (Henry Mettle), who really doesn’t like to be called Theodore; but it’s fellow outsider, the supposedly stupid Zero (Pepter Lunkuse) that Stanley is most drawn to and who helps him solve the mystery of Camp Green Lake and earn their freedom and fortune while they’re at it.
All are fantastic, with accents – which may or may not have passed muster with any Texans and Latvians in the audience – that are more than convincing enough for this Nottingham crowd and just as importantly are held consistently throughout the performance. And with no dialect coach to be found amongst the creative team listed in the programme, that means even more credit is due to them.
The people on stage are ably supported by puppet tarantulas, rattlesnakes and yellow spotted lizards which, while not being quite on the scale of the puppets being employed at the same time across the city in War Horse, are nonetheless absolutely perfect for this production. Meanwhile, Simon Kenny’s unobtrusive and attractively designed desert set does its job superbly by making everything going on onstage (and there’s a lot, including five people digging large holes) fit into it naturally and credibly. There’s even room for the odd extra clever visual joke – when you want to give the impression that your characters are nearing a geographical landmark, what do you do? Make it bigger…
However, most credit should go to the man responsible for bringing all this together into such a fun piece of theatre. For his first two shows, Adam Penford has made quite a statement of intent and in each case has delivered. For Nottingham Playhouse and its audience, the future is suddenly looking very bright.
Runs until 22 April 2018 | Image: Nottingham Playhouse