Writer: N. F. Simpson
Director: Michael Ward
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
There’s not a lot of absurdist theatre to be found in London, not even on the fringe, and the reason is that it’s so difficult to get right. In theory, it shouldn’t be any different from any other type of play, as both have to create fantasy worlds that convince an audience and often the most startling productions do this with minimal props, letting the actors do the work. In practice, however, such flights of imagination often make it harder for the viewer to connect with the surreal and symbolic approach of absurdist pieces.
Heaven &Hell Theatre Company has set itself quite a challenge then in reviving N. F. Simpson’s 1958 playThe Hole, now playing at the Hens &Chickens Theatre. The limited attraction of this kind of work meant that for the first twenty minutes the cast outnumbered the audience until a couple of late arrivals reversed the stakes. Yet those seven viewers will now attest that the rest of London is missing out on a rather brilliant production that comments on the nature of community, science vs religion and deviation from established norms.
As the play opens, a man is waiting next to a hole in the road and tells a local policeman that he expects a grand vision of light to appear any time now for which he is starting a queue. Leaving aside debates about whether one man can form a queue, others appear and so begins a collective vision of what the hole contains, ranging from some kind of games to a prisoner awaiting trial and external invaders. At various points, one person changes the vision and all the others become convinced they see it too, except the original man who continues to wait for the radiance, arousing the suspicion of the others.
Michael Ward’s production is successful because all the actors create a convincing sense of the world in which they exist; no one is trying to extract extra laughs or add sly winks to the audience, it’s played with complete certainty by everyone. The skill with which this ensemble cast riff from vision to vision feels so natural allowing each elaboration to build in a peculiar yet somehow satisfying way. Despite being a strange story, some clear messages about losing the “mystery” and “poetry” of life by reducing everything to science come across well, and there’s a clear sense of Simpson taking stock of whether society is in a better place without its beliefs in the unknown.
It’s very much an ensemble piece – played by Brian Eastty, Darren Ruston, Jamie Alan Osborn, Nicholas Bright, Elena Clements and Angela Loucaides – and the cast didn’t allow a near empty auditorium to detract from their performances which is admirable. They throw themselves into the roles as though the room were packed with viewers, as it deserves to be for the rest of the run. With an opportunity to hear sections of an interview with Simpson as the audience take their seat, this version of The Hole is strangely brilliant and a great opportunity to see something a little bit different. Absurdist theatre may be an acquired taste but this is definitely worth taking a chance on.
Runs until5 March 2016 | Image: Contributed