Holes – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: Louis Sachar

Director: Adam Penford

Since it was released as a novel in 1998, Louis Sachar’s Holes has become a firm favourite with children and young adults. With themes around racism and fairness, it touches on how past events can serve to shape the present in a form that’s easily accessible and enjoyable for young people.

Stanley Yelnats and his family are, they believe, cursed with bad luck. It’s apparently all the fault of his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather” who broke a promise made to a gypsy decades ago in Latvia. Since that day, nothing seems to have gone right for the family and now Stanley has been convicted of stealing a pair of trainers from a baseball star – a crime that he did not commit. He’s sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention camp in the Texas desert, where the inmates spend each day digging holes to build their character. It soon becomes clear that the tyrannical warden is up to something, and there may be more behind the hole-digging than first appears.

The script has been nicely adapted by Louis Sachar himself, and the characters we see are believable albeit slightly exaggerated and often unsubtle – it is after all aimed at a younger audience. As the play progresses, we get flashbacks to points in the past where events have taken place that have shaped the present, as the different strands start to become clearer until they finally all come together. The adults in the audience will be able to see where it’s going quite early on, but the play isn’t aimed at them – and the young people there on Press Night seemed pretty engaged in the plot throughout.

There’s a strong ensemble company with many good performances on show.  James Backway leads proceedings as Stanley, surrounded by his fellow inmates X-Ray (Harold Addo), Zero (Leona Allen), Magnet (Joelle Braban) and Armpit (Henry Mettle), all pretty convincing as a group of teenagers sent to a detention camp – some struggling, others seemingly happy to be there digging each day. John Elkington gives us a classic small-town law enforcement officer in his portrayal of the Judge and the Sherriff as well as Mr Sir, a camp guard, while Rhona Croker almost manages to steal the show as the driven and tyrannical Warden, a woman with her own agenda.

The set designed by Simon Kenny is simple but works very well, with a striking backdrop and many small items that are moved around by the cast, all helping the action to crack along at a fair pace. Some very effective lighting by Prema Metha accompanies it, helping to take us to the heat of the desert as convincingly is it places us in a thunderstorm. The final ingredient is the brilliantly-done puppetry, complete with well-observed rattlesnakes and deadly yellow-spotted lizards with glowing eyes.

The story-telling is wonderful, and the messages about morality, doing what’s right and so on are there but never forced. It’s an engaging comedy-adventure for young people – and if you’re looking to a production to introduce your children to the theatre, this could be a good place to start.

Runs until 22 February 2020

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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