Holes, Arcola Tent, review: Mathew Baynton in an ill-timed plane-crash comedy

Beautifully observed dialogue with nowhere to go

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

“Planes don’t just go missing!” As an expression of exasperation, it probably seemed innocuous enough a year or so ago; Tom Basden’s comedy was a hit at Edinburgh last summer. Now, of course, it feels charged - as does a wincingly unfortunate riff on how terrorists don’t bring down passenger planes... But the show must go on - it seems - and Basden provides some laughter in the dark.

Holes is directed by Phillip Breen, and staged in the round, on a great big tub of sand in the middle of the Arcola Tent - a tropically sweaty venue indeed. Three co-workers and a teenager find themselves stranded on a desert island after a plane crash.

There’s a ghastly HR woman (Elizabeth Berrington), delighted to find a pair of Louboutins in the deceased’s luggage, and that she finally got the “holiday” she deserved. She shares banter with the equally awful Ian (Daniel Rigby) - banging on about English values, speaking in motivational business jargon and text-only abbreviations (“probs”). Soon, he’s using their predicament as a chance to fulfill the caveman, wilderness dreams he’s long crushed under a suit and tie. Mathew Baynton - something of a star now, after the BBC’s The Wrong Mans, which he wrote with Basden - is sarcastic as Gus, miles smarter than the rest, but increasingly hopeless; he distracts himself by downing gin and singing Queen.

They’re all stereotypes of the modern workforce, long familiar from The Office-style sit-coms, but penned with such exquisite precision by Basden that fresh new life courses through their veins. Sharon Singh as the 16-year-old Erin has the hardest part, perhaps, being underwritten by comparison.

Basden beautifully observes the banality of interactions between colleagues, but there’s a sort of giddy madness to the pettiness of their squabbling, given their drastic situation. Passive-aggressive office politics endure, despite the fact that the rest of the office is dead, and about to be buried with a child’s bucket and spade salvaged from someone’s suitcase… the humour may be black, but it’s delivered with real light and shade by a solid, funny foursome.

Baynton especially has superb comic timing. Indeed, he almost derails the power dynamics by being so caustic yet so charming we can’t help but side with him. For the play becomes a power struggle, between the optimist Ian - wrongheaded, idiotic, but at least trying to survive in a terrible situation - and the defeatist Gus - clever but so sneering he won’t even bother. The former’s attempt to rebuild society only really stretches to digging a series of literal holes, but then the other digs himself into a metaphorical one of his own inert cynicism.

The show outstays its welcome, however - these contrasts are bashed against each other repeatedly but never taken anywhere that interesting. And when the second half veers into icky sexual tension and a dystopian denouement, it feels like too wild a swerve.