Review: German Skerries, Orange Tree Theatre

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

Quiet little place, this. But you can see everything from this grassy patch of birdwatching land, out to Redcar, Middlesborough, the British Steel plant, the rocks in the water – skerries. There’s a story in that. The way that all of life can be seen in one little place as people pass through and dwell and talk. How strangers meet. How couples argue and make up. How tragedies happen.

Everyday lives are thrown into gentle relief by Up in Arms in their revival of Robert Holman’s German Skerries at the Orange Tree Theatre. As a company, it’s their first work by a writer from outside of their fold (artistic director Barney Norris wrote their first two plays, Visitors and Eventide). Here the rural lives, slowly evolving drama and the minutiae of everyday happenings feel wonderfully familiar. It’s a play that is pointedly naturalistic – beautifully and rivetingly so.

Our quartet of characters – a rambling school teacher, young married couple and boat pilot – look out at the world around them. It’s all within reach like. And as we sit watching them watching, you might realise that there is a simple beauty in realising that other people live their lives in quiet rhythms of seeing and observing too. The set is a gloriously inviting patch of grassy land with a little shed (cut through to knee height so we can see in) surrounded closely by its audience in the round. The space gives a pleasing extra layer to the theme of watching people watching.

Jack is a young married lad played by George Evans with innocent wonder and quirky riggles. Martin (Howard Ward) is a nattering fifty-something school teacher with a faffing wife, a love for birds and a shed key that gives him endless trouble and us endless delight. They are strangers when they meet on a timeless summer’s day in the ‘greenworld’ of Teeside. Their conversation is full of simple quips: “when we have a summer it makes a pleasant change from winter”.

Something wonderful occurs when Jack looks up and out with his telescope and Martin joins him with his binoculars. Jack is equally delighted with the oyster catchers and cormorants as he is with the magnificent cooling towers at the steel plant. There’s much to link this play to the pastoral literary tradition: its focus on rural lives and rural places, the simplicity of country life, its timelessness and its liberty. But Holman’s writing doesn’t neatly distinguish between nature (good) and industry (bad). Martin might think that the steel plant is a “monstrosity” and the hot water does for a time cause disruption to the aquatic environment. But Jack’s eager celebration of the plant as a delightful part of the landscape is the joyful image we are left with. “Fantastic.”

That is not to say, mind, that German Skerries is without disruptive moments in time that interrupt the idyll. There’s a stormy interlude that is heralded simply by a red state of lighting and intermittent blackouts. It brings forth struggles and sadness. This is perhaps foretold by the story that Martin tells of the “German Skerries” – named for a German plane crash during the second world war on the rocks (‘skerries’). Et in Arcardia ego.

The conversations too between Jack and his wife Carol (Katie Moore) ebb and flow between bitter arguments and cherishing flirtation. Moore gives Carol a sweet but strong persona; she’s the timekeeper, organiser and reader in the relationship. There’s something subtly symbolic in the fact that Jack’s watch cannot keep the time; for him, time is out joint, freely matching to everyday present experience rather than the dictation of schedules. Moore plays out brilliantly her love for Jack in her desire to give him the courage to try where before he has failed.

What a quiet triumph for Up in Arms. Hamilton’s production of German Skerries glows with a deep-felt respect and knowledge of a particular locale and its people.

German Skerries is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 2 April before continuing its tour. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website. Photo: Manuel Harlan