If comedy is all about timing, you probably don’t want your knockabout play about a plane crash to premiere a week after an event like the shooting down of flight MH17. “Why would terrorists bring down a random passenger plane?” asks Gus (Mathew Baynton), one of the survivors in Tom Basden’s Holes. The question is meant to show up the idiocy of Ian (Daniel Rigby), especially after his excitement recalling the thrill of the plane going down: “Stuff flying around the cabin. G-force everywhere. It was properly intense. People screaming. Hugging.”
The unfortunate topicality continually makes the jokes here seem somewhat ghoulish, especially the jolly descriptions of dead children and an innard-soaked cockpit. And when Gus and Ian debate the concept of ‘too soon’, it’s hard not to think that the whole play might have been re-worked at the last minute to overtly challenge the recent newspaper headlines. But then you start wondering: why on earth would fluffy TV writer Basden do that? It would have made more sense to trim some of the gorier gags. Either way, it’s a distraction that pretty much hobbles the first half hour of a story that really wants to exist well outside of our everyday reality. Basden is going for escapist entertainment, a stylised sitcom-esque world where everyone is as thick as the thieves in Home Alone.
The plot is about as basic as it gets – four survivors on a desert island trying to figure out what they should do next. It feels slightly like an introductory exercise in a creative writing class or a recycled radio play from the 70s. And that’s not to say it couldn’t have worked – if good jokes and characters had helped it transcend the clichéd premise – but unfortunately neither are quite strong enough. Gus soon flattens out into a snarky drunken bore while the two female parts (played by Sharon Singh and Elizabeth Berrington) are lazily underwritten. Only Ian is fully-realised as a character worth engaging with, though this may well be down to Daniel Rigby’s terrific, live-wire performance. As a salesman turned gung-ho hunter-gatherer, he also gets the biggest laugh of the night when performing a manic Heimlich manoeuvre.
It’s when things start turning a bit Lord of the Flies (as one fully expects them to do) that the play really comes unstuck. The lurch in tone is handled badly and po-faced conversations about raping to breed are left lingering on stage like the stinking marmot Ian catches for dinner. Maybe Basden should stick to Fresh Meat on Channel 4 instead.
Holes is on at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston until 9 August 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.