How to Hold Your Breath, Royal Court, review: yet more state-funded misanthropy

Plus: a smart, funny new play at The Space, which everyone in TV should see

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

How to Hold Your Breath

Royal Court, until 21 March

The Domestic Extremists

The Space, in rep until 28 February

‘We hate the system and we want the system to pay us to say we hate the system.’ The oratorio of subsidised theatre rises, in triumphant blast, at the Royal Court whose current empress Vicky Featherstone has chosen to direct an interesting new play by Zinnie Harris. I’d call it a quasi-symbolist extraterrestrial tragicomic chicklit road-movie spoof with Chomsky-esque anti-corporate neo-collectivist socioeconomic textual underpinning but I fear this may lend it a clarity of purpose, and a firmness of character, which it doesn’t quite possess.

We start with Dana, a chippy frump on the last lap of her sex life, bedding a UN drudge named Jarron who claims to be ‘a demon, a devil, a god’. ‘I thought you would notice my semen is black,’ he helpfully elaborates. Jarron and his inky tadpoles depart for Alexandria pursued by the besotted Dana along with her sister Jasmine, preggers. En route they meet a comedy librarian (from an alternative universe) whose book titles — How to Stop Gagging With Someone’s Putrid Penis In Your Mouth — are hilariously funny (in an alternative universe). Jasmine suffers a miscarriage (which Harris confuses with a haemorrhage), and her instant descent into shouty, weepy maundering grief is undermined somewhat by her earlier threat to coathanger the foetus if it inconvenienced her. Economic collapse engulfs Europe and the sob sisters find themselves penniless in the smoking ruins of a Mediterranean capital. Dana goes on the game. Joyless coition in a rubbish tip earns her a 50 euro note, which is promptly stolen by a rival entrepreneuse. Horror succeeds horror until Dana finally expires. Then someone brings her back to life, which, I have to say, is a mistake that ongoing script adjustments might fruitfully rectify. More stuff happens after that.

Chloe Lamford’s disorderly set is as gruesome to contemplate as the storyline. Dana (Maxine Peake) sports a 1980s wedge and a set of baggy trouser suits borrowed apparently from a Slovakian funeral parlour. Without make-up Peake’s sexy, puckish face is drained of colour and her pallid mug resolves into a sepia disc. It’s like watching a bombastic lozenge on liquorice stalks bellowing twaddle for two hours. The stirrings and yawnings of the audience put me in mind of fog-bound tourists regretting their holiday plans at Terminal Five. What a night. A state-funded rant advertising misanthropy to sleepy fidgets.

More faux-subversion at the Space theatre in a converted chapel a mile from Canary Wharf. The Domestic Extremists (grrr!) promises to expose the wickedness of the broadcast media. Really? Go on then. The opening scene is surprisingly calm and naturalistic. Chloe, an ambitious young director, pitches an agitprop documentary to a cynical older hack, Chris, who makes daytime TV garbage for sofa-ridden dole-victims. No thanks, says Chris. But when he discovers that Chloe has nicked his stationery to secure an interview with a minister, he’s intrigued. Me too.

The multilayered plot unfolds with guile and intelligence. The film, which Chris agrees to champion, will highlight the evils of monetising Britain’s universities. Chris tells Chloe that a hit documentary needs to be manipulated and structured like a Hollywood blockbuster. A sympathetic heroine (student with baby) must fight and defeat an all-powerful enemy (the education minister) in order to win personal redemption and guarantee the survival of her clan (future generations of undergraduates.). Chloe agrees to this compromise as Chris sets off to persuade the sceptical network boss to fund the film. Shooting starts. Things go wrong. An undercover cop is found to be embedded with the student protestors. What next? Chris’s commitment to the project leads him to jeopardise his career, and even his liberty, in order to get Chloe’s message across to the public. His transition from smug waster to free-speech martyr may seem a tad improbable but the script is on his side. And therefore so are we.

Dan Davies crams his smart, funny story with some brilliant and mischievous cameos. Four of these are done by Sadie Parsons, who plays a drippy student mum, a lairy, drug-fuelled anarchist and a simpering Blair-babe minister whose platitudes are so cosy you could fall asleep on them. Her finest hour is as a nerdy film editor who beguiles the monotony of her job by spouting arcane but faintly aggressive statistics from her perch at the computer screen. Among the delights of this absorbing play is that its structure replicates the Hollywood blueprint as outlined by Chris: hero, enemy, struggle, defeat, redemption, self-sacrifice, renewal. TV execs watching the show won’t fail to notice that it comes ready-packed as a BBC1 three-parter. Everyone in TV should see this. So should everyone who aspires to work in TV.

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Show comments
  • ohforheavensake

    Bit of a tip. Next time you go to the theatre, decide that you’re going to review the play. I’m sure you’ve got lots of little prejudices (and, judging by this, a few issues: quite a few issues); but don’t let them spill out. We’re not interested. Just review the play.

  • gay kid

    Do you want to fight me ,,,,,,,,,,,, I’m not sure cheap shots at the lead actress are quite what one would call a review, hmm

    • adult

      Maxine, beautiful and skilled actress, could make her role more realistic, praiseworthy and give the reviewers some sexy eye candy, going without her kit for the “love scenes”. Don’t catch cold tho. 😉

  • Louise

    Thank you for your measured, intelligent review of the play. Not. Why be a theatre reviewer? You should get together with the execrable Tim Walker, I can only guess at the gems you could come up with between you.