The Theatreguide.London Review
Park Theatre Autumn 2014
Robert Holman is the author of Making Noise Quietly, an evening of three short plays that each have something small to say and efficiently and effectively take no longer than is absolutely necessary to say it.
Jonah And Otto (2008) also has something small to say, but takes a full-length play to say it, which means that it keeps losing its focus and energy in repetition, digression and unnecessary mystification.
An older man encounters a young man in a Beckettian noplace. The boy robs the elder, then returns the money, then takes it back again. They exchange gnomic comments like 'Life is just one more thing to keep clean'. Later one will turn out to be epileptic and the other an extraordinarily deep sleeper.
So abstract does all this seem in Tim Stark's production and Simon Bejer's design that it comes as a shock to discover in the printed text that the playwright sets the action in a specific place – a garden and later a beach in a Kentish seaside town.
We have to wait for the dialogue gradually to let us know these things, and also to give the two characters identities that anchor them in reality and explain why they're here. Small spoiler alert: we will eventually be told that the older man, Otto, is a clergyman in this town and the younger, Jonah, is a street performer and petty crook who has a perfectly ordinary reason for hanging around with a baby in a supermarket cart.
Indeed, the more we learn about the characters, the more ordinary and un-mysterious they become and, unfortunately, the less interesting.
Why is Otto not running for his life from this robber? Because he's doing his pastoral work by befriending and counselling the lad. Why is Jonah bothering with this old fool? Because he has a specific thing to do at a specific hour and is just killing time.
Of course there's more to it than that. As Otto tries to open Jonah up, and opens himself up as part of the process, we discover that both consider themselves failures in different ways. Sharing those confessions doesn't improve things much for either of them, except that they part feeling a little less unique and alone, which is perhaps some comfort.
That elusive, minimal hint at a very slightly happy ending is a Holman trademark, but this play takes far too long to get there and, except for the miserly parcelling out of simple information, has very progress or forward movement.
The outline of the play is a spiral, repeatedly doubling back on itself to reiterate points and revelations that have already been made, with the two characters repeatedly taking turns resisting any attempt to be known better and immediately following up with a lengthy monologue of self-exposure.
Certainly the direction and design in this London premiere don't help, by giving us so little to start with that we inevitably focus on the external facts as they are doled out rather than on the character insights.
And Peter Egan (Otto) and Alex Waldmann (Jonah), cast adrift on the bare stage, have to work extra hard both to create realistic characters in a realistic world – I still can't believe that sleeping sequence – and to draw us into them and make us care.
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Review - Jonah And Otto - Park Theatre 2014