Theatre Review: Making Noise Quietly

Peter Gill's revival of Robert Holman's triptych at the Donmar Warehouse is unmissable.

Robert Holman wrote Making Noise Quietly in 1986, in a Britain still raw from the effects of the Falklands War. But the triptych of plays examines war in several forms, also exploring aspects of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

In Peter Gill's revival at the Donmar Warehouse, the subjects are the same, but the recurring themes in all three plays could equally be applied to the wars we are engaged in today - and remind us constantly of our present situation.
 
The first play, Being Friends, is set in 1944 and focuses on the conversation between two young men who meet on a field in Kent; the second, Lost, is set in 1982 and reveals a mother's grief as she comes to terms with the loss of her son in the Falklands; the third, Making Noise Quietly, concerns the meeting of a German Holocaust survivor, a severely autistic English child and his stepfather, who stumble across one another in the Black Forest in 1986. 
 
Each play deals with similar issues: desire, loss, rejection, anger, pain and forgiveness. But they are each plays in their own right and we cannot help but compare them.
 
Holman's triptych explores how war can bring together entirely different people who might not otherwise meet. In the fisrt play, Being Friends, Oliver (Jordan Dawes) is a farmer and former chemistry student. He exudes stereotypical masculinity: strong and silent; broad Manchester accent; at home with matters of facts and science. The artist Eric (Matthew Tennyson), meanwhile, is effeminate, highly cultured, and feeble as a result of a recent motor accident. The contrast between the two is humorous in its flagrancy; yet they are brought together through their disengagement with the war: Eric because of his accident, Oliver being a conscientious objector. 
 
In Being Friends, Gill's casting is flawless and it is the actors who fully realise Holman's characterisation. Dawes is broad-shouldered and handsome, spending most of his stage time lounging across the floor; meanwhile, Tennyson is pale, thin as a bird and nervously fiddling with his old-fashioned glasses. Their onstage chemistry, bringing the subtext bubbling to the surface, is so in tune that what could be a mundane conversation becomes an exciting, entertaining snapshot that is fraught with tension. 
 
In Holman's second installment, Lost, Susan Brown gives a breathtaking performance as May, who hasn't seen her son for five years. His friend and fellow army officer Geoffrey (John Hollingworth) pays her a visit, and the short play (in fact, shortest of the three) is an examination of her reaction. We learn a great deal about the relationship between May and her son Ian, but the play is essentially a monologue from May, with the odd comment from Geoffrey thrown in. We learn nothing about him: the only time he speaks is in relation to Ian and May, and for this reason the characterisation in Lost is not as well-rounded as it is in the other plays. 
 
The third play, Making Noise Quietly, examines pain, anger, and the ways we deal with them. Helene (Sara Kestelman) is a Holocaust survivor who is enjoying her later years painting in the Black Forest. Sam (played on the press night by Lewis Andrews) has stumbled across her and refuses to leave, followed by his stepfather Alan (Ben Batt). Sam is severely autistic and can't speak; he screams at anyone who gets in his way and, we learn, frequently wets the bed. He has driven Alan to the end of his tether, but they are not so different after all: both abandoned by Sam's mother and Alan's wife; both lonely; both bursting with anger at the world around them. While Sam cannot form any words, Alan has verbal diarrhoea, swearing with practically every sentence (a brilliant nod to the first play, Being Friends, in which both Oliver and Eric are aghast when referring to the use of the "f"-word). 
 
We learn that Helene has her own anger, too: at the concentration camp guards who took her childhood from her and killed her family. Alan doesn't know how to deal with this, the entire notion being completely removed from what he is used to. The situation asks fascinating questions about the measurement of suffering and what really warrants anger. And as with Eric and Oliver in the first play, Alan and Helene could not be more different, tied together by both frustration at Sam and the desire to help him. Kestelman's interpretation of Helene is remarkable: there is a scene that makes us question whether she is so disturbed that her morality has actually been compromised; the mood was so awkward that I wanted to jump out of my seat and either leave the auditorium or put a stop to the whole charade. But what is the good of theatre if not to provoke reactions like this?
 
Because of their complexity and potency on several levels, the first and third plays are far stronger than the second. But Holman's script is, as it always was, fantastic, and the cast bring it to life in a way that would be impossible to beat. Making Noise Quietly is a thrilling play.
Sara Kestelman and Lewis Andrews in Making Noise Quietly. Photo by Johan Persson
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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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