Jonah and Otto, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

One day in the park with Otto
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The Independent Culture

Sound sleeper though I am, I would know if someone was relieving me of my clothes while I dozed upright on a park bench. And a baby that doesn't murmur until the final minutes of a two-hour duologue is little short of miraculous. Those are just two of many astonishing things in Robert Holman's compelling two-hander Jonah and Otto. A third is the presence, in this 90-seat studio production, of the Hollywood actor Ian McDiarmid as Otto Banister – a role that is in marked contrast to that of Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.

Claire Lizzimore directs this premiere of Holman's latest play, extremely well-cast, in which a man of the cloth at first appears to be in love with the ivy-clad brickwork of his East Sussex vicarage garden. While going quietly up the wall, consumed by doubts, barely suppressed passion, self-loathing and a fear of letting people to get too close, Otto encounters Jonah Teale.

On the surface Jonah is a tearaway and a thief but, underneath the alternately beguiling and repulsive character, there's an insecure epileptic and caring young father of a six-week-old baby. Their roles are subtly reversed as Otto's personality begins to unbutton. After he's been unknowingly stripped down to his blue boxer shorts, while Jonah insouciantly dons his clergyman's suit and shirt, Otto bares his soul, opening up about his faltering faith, comfortless marriage and yearning for beautiful women. In a few hours, Jonah becomes the son Otto never had, while the older man represents the father Jonah lost to cancer.

Opposite McDiarmid's haunting and haunted Otto, Andrew Sheridan creates an intriguing portrait of the troubled Jonah, alternating charm and crudeness with the smile of an angel and the grimace of a gargoyle. Brimming with emotional wonder, Jonah and Otto is an intricately layered creation that hums hypnotically. Paul Burgess's elegant set and the tricks masterminded by "Magic" Matt Windsor (resident magician at Manchester United) contribute, along with an ethereal soundscape.



'Jonah and Otto', to 5 April (0161-833 9833)

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