Writer: Robert Holman
Director: Alice Hamilton
Designer: James Perkins
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The pre-publicity for German Skerries describes it thus: “A friendship, a marriage, a holiday, a death.” Factually this is correct; the impression, however, is slightly misleading. Of the three scenes, the first deals with the meeting and developing the friendship of Jack, a young factory worker, and Martin, a much older schoolteacher. Among other things the second brings out the problems and underlying love in Jack’s marriage to tax officer Carol and in the final scene Martin returns from holiday and things return to normal – or not. So the first three components fit perfectly; not the fourth. There is a death, but not of a central character or one of whom the audience knows a great deal. The billing suggests a rather more eventful play than German Skerries. Rather than things happening, it deals with ambition, failure, the insignificance of man and the survival of hope.
Robert Holman’s play was written in 1977 and this seems doubly poignant in this revival by Up in Arms and Orange Tree Theatre. At the time, it won the George Devine Award for new drama, yet surprisingly this is the first revival. In fact, this is fairly easy to understand: its allusive subtlety and supple delicacy no doubt appealed to the judges more than they have to theatre companies seeking more obviously substantial fare. Secondly, there is the irony unknown to Holman when he wrote it – and even unknown to Up in Arms when they planned this revival – that the future to be feared in the play is the enlargement of the British Steel plant in Redcar which now has just become the past.
The German Skerries are rocks in the mouth of the Tees where a German bomber crashed in the Second World War. In the play, they are the haunt of cormorants and a symbol of the dangers of change: the development of the steel works offers a potential threat to the lives of the birds as well as being the actual cause of the death of one employee on the Skerries. Martin and Jack, on the other hand, birdwatching from South Gare between the Tees and the North Sea, represent the dangers of a lack of change. Martin has reached the age of 59 with nothing more than a nagging wife, sons away from home, holidays always unambitiously in the same place and a sometimes restless class of 10-year-olds. Jack seeks a better job but is constrained by his lack of qualifications and his certainty that he is not capable of gaining any.
These people make no great impact among their fellows, but they are decent, almost painfully nice. The production, unobtrusively directed by Alice Hamilton in James Perkins’ simple grassy mound set with a beautiful sound design from George Dennis, invites self-effacing performances. Howard Ward’s Martin is a chap you could meet anywhere, schoolteacherly informative about this and that now and again carried away by comical riffs about his wife, then instantly apologetic. George Evans has an open innocence as Jack, too ready to believe he has said the wrong thing or offended people. The joking and horseplay with Carol (a pitch-perfect and sympathetic Katie Moore) is fun, but soon she is back to the quotidian task of helping him get his life on the rails. In such a setting Henry Everett’s boisterous river pilot seems a touch over the top.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed