Robert Holman is a playwright rarely revived. The Park Theatre’s staging of his 2008 play Jonah and Otto will be the first of his works to be produced in London since Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar Warehouse two years ago. That production, remarkably, was the first Holman revival since 2003, when the Royal Exchange Theatre put together a major retrospective of his work. When they come along then, any Holman revival is worth treasuring. This one, happily, is a case in point.
When we first see Otto (Peter Egan), a clergyman in a shirt and suit, it looks as though he may be about to be mugged by a dishevelled youngster. This, it turns out, is Jonah (Alex Waldmann). And although he doesn’t mug Otto, both men leave having shared – consciously or not – something of themselves. Both of their lives, in some small way, is irrevocably altered.
Set over the course of a single day on a deserted part of the east coast of Sussex, you’d be forgiven for thinking not a great deal happens. Holman’s play is unrelenting in its staunch simplicity: having struck up a conversation, the two men simply talk. They talk about magic at first, then about god, then love, lust and loss. But although the topics they discuss are there for all to see, the conditions of the exchange between the two men are rather more difficult to pin down.
The meeting of these two strangers appears at once directionless and curiously preordained. Neither wants to leave. Nor, it seems, do they know what they’re hoping to get out of it. “Is it for me, or is it for you?”, Jonah asks at one point. “Is it for my sake, or is it for your sake?” That question is complicated as the action of the play sees the roles of the two men subtly reversed, a point emphasised by the literal switching of clothes in the play’s most memorable sequence. But as they begin to form an unlikely friendship, both achieve a sort of redemption, with Jonah becoming the son Otto never had, while the older man comes to represent the father Jonah lost to cancer. Holman’s writing, though, is not nearly as prescriptive as that. Instead he allows the outcome of the exchange to remain gratifyingly elusive.
Robert Holman knows how to put a sentence together. His dialogue strings together words and phrases you’d forgotten even existed: “You talk gobbledegook”, Jonah tells Otto at one point. The way Holman threads this unexpectedly heightened language through moments of seeming triviality brings to mind the plays of Simon Stephens, a known admirer of Holman’s work.
When a playwright’s work is held in such high esteem by fellow professionals and revived with such infrequency, there is an inescapable pressure to do it justice. Tim Stark’s restrained production does exactly that, shunning any gratuitous gimmicks and allowing the action to play out in mesmerising fashion. What a rare thing it is, too, for the transitional moments to take place in almost complete silence, without choreographed movement and extraneous music.
A play with an emotional trajectory such as this demands commanding performances and they duly arrive – even if they take a while to set in. Indeed, although the quality of both actors ultimately prevails, the opening exchanges are curiously lacking in tension, sexual or otherwise. So much so that when Jonah later says “I thought you were gay for about ten minutes”, it serves as a reminder of the tepidity of what has come before.
That tepidity was not helped, I’m sure, by a bizarre series of interruptions from the audience on press night, with the performance even coming to a halt at one point whilst an ambulance was called for an audience member who became unwell. Nevertheless, both actors could do with dialling up the vitriol in the early exchanges of the play. Without it, even in Jonah’s early outbursts, there is never any real sense of threat.
Thankfully, both Egan and Waldmann settled into the second act, with Jonah’s bursts of anger subsiding to reveal the figure of a sensitive and vulnerable young father of a six-week-old baby. Stripped down to his boxer shorts, Egan revels in Otto’s increasing candidness as the play goes on. His is a performance of vulnerability and delicate humanity, an isolated and lonely man desperate for redemption.
Like much of Holman’s work, Jonah and Otto is a slow, meditative play in which not much appears to happen, but boy is it compelling.
Jonah and Otto is playing at the Park Theatre until 23 November. For more information and tickets visit the Park Theatre website.