Review: How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court

“I thought when it came to it, I would be good at it”

Despite the fact that I really wasn’t a fan of How To Hold Your Breath, I can’t help but be impressed by the way that Vicky Featherstone really has shaken up the Royal Court since taking over as Artistic Director last year. The diversity in programming may mean that there’s no such thing as a safe bet there any more (something to play havoc with those who carefully book everything months in advance) but there’s something thrilling about that unpredictability, and also the variety that it thus lends to people’s theatregoing.

Turning into more of a lucky dip does mean that you’re not always going to pick a winner and such was the case for me with ZInnie Harris’ new work. A densely written and constructed play, it imagines a Europe swallowed whole by a new financial crisis and leaving the remnants of society to fend for themselves, turned into refugees fighting to cross the border into Istanbul or gain passage on rickety ships bound for Alexandria. With a seductive demon on one shoulder and her pregnant sister on the other, Maxine Peake’s Dana finds herself forced into that such a journey.

Peake is eminently watchable as she frequently is and Featherstone directs a strong company around her – Christine Bottomley as the sister, Michael Shaeffer’s demon, Peter Forbes’ ever-helpful librarian. But the play around them is immensely hard work, rambling passages stretch out lugubriously amidst hammer-heavy symbolism and even if Peake’s lends them a scarcely earned sense of poetry at their beginnings, by their end the patience has worn thin.

Simon Stephens liked it very much and I wonder if fans of his work would enjoy this too but this really wasn’t my kind of writing at all. And yet I feel fine about it, not everything at the Royal Court (or indeed any theatre) has to appeal to me.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Booking until 21st March

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