THEATRE REVIEW: How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court

playing until 21 March

Zinnie Harris’s How To Hold Your Breath has certainly divided the critics, with some surprisingly harsh reviews emerging; having avoided these until I’d seen the show for myself, I was somewhat disappointed to see Harris has not been given much credit for her bold and ambitious approach, even if some rather than all of the elements worked. London’s theatrical scene is always best when varied, but its disappointing that less adventurous West End shows (Shakespeare in Love, I’m looking at you…) get showered with praise and stars, but something more daring such as this receives some largely undeserved – in my opinion – slatings.

how to hold your breathAnyhow. Putting this aside, let’s focus on Harris’s work itself. It’s perhaps true that there is so much going on here that it’s rather overloaded, but it’s a fascinating piece of theatre in spite of its imperfections. With everything from Faustian mystery to the economic collapse of Europe, there’s a lot to get your teeth into. And much of it works well – the first scene is all light humour imbued with hints of darkness that grow and envelope the characters throughout the play. Yet Harris’s script retains its twisty humour alongside the anguish, and the cast carry us through strongly.

Christine Bottomley is heartbreakingly helpless after tragedy strikes, while Michael Shaeffer proves a little irritating as devilish and enigmatic Jarron. Peter Forbes amuses and baffles as a librarian who pops up at the best and worst times to offer ‘helpful’ guides throughout Dara’s turmoil. But stealing the show is Maxine Peake as heroine of the piece Dara. She gives the play direction and focus; she is sparky and bright even in the darkest scenes, a beacon on the stage. Peake says so much with the smallest of intonations, expressions and movements and without her How To Hold Your Breath would be much less.

There are so many ideas on the stage that you do begin to feel swamped by the end, and the final scene for me is a disappointment that undermines much of what has gone before; however, there is much to ponder in this unusual and ambitious work that deserves not to be cast aside, but to be developed and taken further.

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