Two strangers – one approaching 60, the other in his early 20s – meet at a bird-watching spot overlooking the Tees. As the men talk and bond, little parallels in their experience start to reveal themselves. The older man, Martin, is a school-teacher whose early hopes of leaving the area were dashed by parental opposition. The younger, Jack, is a shift-worker at a local plant, a little bit dreamy and directionless, and being urged to fulfill his potential by his wife Carol.
Alice Hamilton’s beautiful staging of Robert Holman’s German Skerries, a co-production with her Up in Arms company, brings a beguiling tenderness to the Orange Tree stage. The play hasn’t been seen since its 1977 Bush Theatre debut, and, in some ways, it’s not too hard to see why. This is the sort of work that invariably gets described as “minor-key” and that won’t necessarily appeal to viewers keen on big emotional blow-ups and dramatic revelations.
Darker elements are present, whether in memories of war (encapsulated in the title image), or the pervasive sense that human aspirations are often doomed to disappointment or, at least, compromise. Yet there’s nothing modishly pessimistic or pushy about the approach: Holman’s writing is spare and delicate, and while the social context is certainly felt – the work touches on industrial unrest and pollution – the play doesn’t hammer home political points, instead presenting these “issues” as part of the fabric and texture of its characters daily lives. As such, the substance of the drama is in the “small” moments – a man raising his hand to wave at a friend out on a boat, not knowing that the person he thinks he’s waving at is now dead; a young woman sneaking up to surprise her spouse – which are revealed here not as “small” but rather as the very stuff of life.
Hamilton’s production ensures that all of these moments resonate. Benefiting from an atmospheric sound design by George Dennis, good performances from its quartet – George Evans as Jack, Howard Ward as Martin, Katie Moore as Carol and Henry Everett as Michael – and a terrific set by James Perkins that provides a grassy promontory for the characters to loll, watch and interact on, the play extends a gracious hand of solidarity to the audience. Its quiet humanity is bracing.
German Skerries is booking until 2 April. Further information here.