Adam Penford’s tenure as artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse got off to an impressive start with a fine production of Beth Steele’s Nottingham mining story, Wonderland. His staging of Louis Sachar’s compelling 1998 children’s novel, set in a boys’ detention centre called Camp Green Lake in the Texan desert, is just as much a statement of intent.
It begins with a display of puppetry that nods towards family hits such as The Lion King and War Horse. Except the snakes, spiders and lizards that slide and scuttle across the vast desert floor are venomous rather than cute and loveable.
It’s a neat joke, in harmony with the comic tone of Sachar’s novel, and announces Penford’s determination to programme quality family theatre. His instincts are correct. The Playhouse has long delivered a much admired and well-loved annual pantomime, so why not also serve that audience at other points in the year? Just to make absolutely sure of the connection, John Elkington, best known as the Playhouse’s regular panto dame, pops up here to good effect as the rather less likable Mr Sir, an adult who bullies the boys at the camp and who is also a victim of bullying.
Holes is a novel that, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, is a rite of passage for many children, providing a vital bridge between primary and secondary school reading. It is both deliciously improbable, with its stories of outlaws, curses and a lost fortune, and also thematically grown-up in its handling of racial intolerance, oppression and accountability.
As well as being a rollicking good story of injustice righted, its appeal lies in its 14-year-old antihero, the unfortunate Stanley, wrongly accused of stealing a pair of trainers – who blames his ill luck on a curse brought down on his family by his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”. Chris Ashby is engagingly doleful in the role. His Stanley, initially under the misapprehension that Camp Green Lake will be like one of those summer camps that his family could never afford to send him to, is caught by surprise at this hard-knock world, a regime that demands he dig a five-foot hole every single day in the blazing heat.
Like the novel, Penford’s production gets the balance between gritty realism and wild fantasy just right, and like his Watership Down at the Watermill, the show has a pleasingly fluid quality enhanced by Simon Kenny’s spare design. If the flashbacks, which tell the story of the 19th-century outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow, are less compelling, that is in part due to the occasional awkwardness of Sachar’s own adaptation.
But the harshness of life in Camp Green Lake is always vividly drawn, the horrors cut with comedy, and the ensemble play multiple roles with relish. Pepter Lunkuse is particularly engaging as the outsider orphan, Zero, whose history is entwined with Stanley’s, and the camp’s warden, a woman infinitely more poisonous than any of the snakes and spiders, is played with gleeful nastiness by Kacey Ainsworth.