‘The Hold’ (NMS: 12 – 16 March ’14)

“Howie so naturally slips into the physicality of his role as William, a museum security guard, that several times he disappears in plain sight.”

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

“That’s the way to do it. They’re really good.” My companion, an HR honcho at an international hotel chain, is seriously impressed by the smooth operation of the ushers who are taking us around the National Museum. They’re moving several dozen people from point to point through the usual Saturday throng of visitors. With smiling (but ruthless) efficiency we are maneuvered into the best spots from which to view the drama unfold.

The lads are in rather splendid tartan waistcoats, the lasses in sashes. Half the waistcoats and sashes are backed in gold, the other in blue. The intention is to help orientate the tour’s two tracks. The effect is to fill the NMS entry concourse with figures costumed like they are serving command and science roles aboard the USS Excelsior – the starship on which Scotty served as Captain.

Peter is being forced to take stock. The long retired museum worker is moving on. Surrounded by boxes and boxes (and more boxes) of mementos, he sets out on a journey into his past punctuated by the stories held in each carefully cherished item. As is revealed to his acerbic young assistant, Sally, Peter’s story involves both love and loss. He can hold onto objects but struggles to remain close to people.

The underlay of writer Adrian Osmond’s narrative weave is a satisfyingly springy comic conceit – a retired museum worker who is also a compulsive hoarder. John Edgar as Peter perfectly balances the sympathy due to his elderly character without ever flinching from exposing those curiosities in Peter’s personality which make him such an oddball.

Teri Robb as Sally is Edgar’s idea foil. Her reactions, together with her growing understanding of Peter, pilot us through the script’s twists, turns and flashbacks. Robb is the valve through which we can all let off steam.

We see Peter as a young man bashfully courting Alice, his muse. Rising star Derek Darvell justifies his reputation as one to watch by filling out Edgar’s portrayal of Peter with intricate touches and touching intricacies. Nicola Tuxworth as Alice is poised and stylish – it’s not hard to see why Peter fell so hard for her.

Brilliant. It’s the only word to describe Stephen Tait as the bumptious, terribly busy Professor Stone, proprietor and chief curator of Peter’s museum. From the deadpan bossiness with which he opens proceedings, through the pitch perfect comic timing of his lecture on the nature of objects, to the final scenes in which he closes the drama, Tait offers up a masterclass in disciplined, pacy work.

The pairing of Tait with Mark Howie is pure genius – the best since someone put David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst in a room together. Howie so naturally slips into the physicality of his role as William, a museum security guard, that several times he disappears in plain sight. As Stone’s shadow, William deflates his pomposity even while building up his boss’ authority.

Osmond’s script is a triumvirate of duos with one exception. Emma McCaffrey as Bridget plays a bad hand well. Without a partner to whom she can position her delivery, too much of her performance is lost in the cacophonous hubbub of the venue. Noise bleed was more than a problem. Especially in the early scenes it became the woolly mammoth in the Renaissance Gallery. Too often it was a real strain to hear what was going on. The impact of the final scene was lost altogether when we stood under a gantry echoing with footsteps overhead.

Since it’s the fashion to believe that under-10s learn best by osmosis, I tend to avoid the museum at weekends, when it’s packed with noisy children learning about the stone age through proximity to arrowheads. Staging a mature drama amid the shrieking hordes of Tamsins and Hamishes was a daft idea.

It’s a real shame because so much of the staging was so clever and engaged. The tent in the Neolithic Room, the pine cones by the Roman headstones – devices which set the scene and dressed the stage with the speed and clarity of a signal lamp. Not since Henry VI Part III has a paper crown been used to such effect as it was in Stone’s lecture.

Set against a haunting backdrop of live music, which sent a thrill down the spine, director Maria Oller delivered a Scandinavian-style flatpack of concepts quickly assembled by a well drilled yet fluid company. The Hold set weighty ideas on a very human scale. This hard working, talented cast deserved the serenity of an after hours outing.

nae bad_blue

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 15 March)

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