Robert Holman’s play, German Skerries, an award winning play from 1979, is a subtle, realistic look at Britain through the eyes of three characters on a hillside overlooking both the sea and the industrial heart of Middlesborough in the North East of England. There is plenty going on offstage, as a middle aged teacher and a young couple talk, think, watch birds, boats and industrial unrest through binoculars and a small telescope but not a lot of action on stage. They talk, flirt, argue, and work through their own thoughts and concerns while we watch. It is a portrait of the times seen through a the microscope of a small group of people. We are shown the impact of the wider world on their lives through gentle dialogue and delicate interaction- all very English- rather than high drama. In fact the only time that something dramatic does happen to a fourth character on stage it is perhaps the least convincing scene in the play when set against the gentle realism of the rest.
The actors have to be very good to make writing of this kind work. There is no chance for them to grandstand or rely on events to bolster a performance. The only way to make it work is to show real, vulnerable people on stage- to be convincing as a character from the inside- and the cast of this first major revival from Up in Arms and the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond do exactly that. Howard Evans is a very recognisable type, one which I have met often, a likable, well meaning, ageing teacher and Katie Moore and George Evans are a convincing young couple, bickering sometimes but very much in love. There is a lot of warmth to enjoy.
The set is realistic and beautifully made, a small shed, a path and a patch of hillside, and it sat very comfortably in the round at the Stephen Joseph- a perfect backdrop for a tiny slice of life.
I enjoyed my afternoon very much, but theatre is a strange, organic business and on the afternoon I saw German Skerries from the back seats of a small audience it didn’t quite seem to take off. The round at Scarborough is a strange, unforgiving space and there is a sweet spot which makes things work, a kind of chemistry between what is happening on stage and the audience who are clearly visible. When this comes alive in the hands of a company who really know the space it is magic and when it doesn’t it is sometimes nobody’s fault.