Plays by Robert Holman

Bad Weather

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's Bad Weather is a play exploring the nature of violence and the possibility of redemption. It was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 22 April 1998.

The play begins on a grim housing estate in Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire. There’s been a fight at a local Chinese restaurant. A man is badly injured. Two young men are involved, Luke and Jamie. Despite the fact that both boys are guilty of the attack, loudmouth Luke manages to get off whilst Jamie, unwilling to grass up his best mate, is sent to prison. To complicate matters, Jamie’s girlfriend (and Luke’s sister) Rhona is carrying his child. The court case takes its toll on Jamie’s French mother, Kay, whose stress is aggravated when her former nanny, Agnès, turns up unannounced having been estranged for twenty years. However, her appearance may just offer a means of escape for everyone involved and transform the storm in which they are trapped into a far brighter outlook.

As Colin Chambers writes in an introduction to the published script, 'Much of Holman's work has been seen to startling effect in small theatres because, as in Bad Weather, he reveals the larger picture beyond through small and often domestic detail, driven by sharp observation of life rather than a particular ideology and by a deceptive economy of style that is spare and steely, yet compassionate and emotionally powerful.'

The Royal Shakespeare Company premiere was directed by Steven Pimlott and designed by Ashley Martin-Davis. The cast was Emma Handy, Paul Popplewell, Ryan Pope, Susan Brown, Barry Stanton and Susan Engel.

A Breakfast of Eels

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's play A Breakfast of Eels is a two-hander about two young men trying to find their way in the world after the death of the man they thought of as their father. It was first performed at the Print Room at the Coronet, London, on 20 March 2015.

The play is set in the present day in Highgate, London, and in Northumberland. When the play opens, the two characters, Penrose (aged 21) and Francis (aged 35), are preparing for the funeral of Penrose’s father. They both refer to the deceased man as 'Daddy', but it becomes clear that he was not Francis's father. Penrose seems emotionally immature and fey, while Francis appears more confident, even protective of Penrose, insisting that Penrose dress properly for the funeral. As the play develops, Penrose tries to gift the ancestral manor he's inherited to Francis, together with a small fortune in cash. They banter, battle, and bond over the course of five Acts, and both are changed, not necessarily in ways they understand.

The Print Room premiere was directed by Robert Hastie and designed by Ben Stones, with Andrew Sheridan as Francis and Matthew Tennyson as Penrose.

In an introduction to the published script, Holman explains that he wrote the play specifically for Andrew Sheridan and Matthew Tennyson to perform (both had appeared in previous plays of his: Sheridan in Holes in the Skin and Jonah and Otto, Tennyson in the 2012 revival of Making Noise Quietly). Holman goes on to describe how each of them contributed to the play: 'When Making Noise Quietly was over, Tennyson and I went for a walk along the Thames. I said how, now and again, I’d had a go at writing parts for actors and would he be interested if I was to write a play for him, and that at some point I would need the name of his character. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted the play to be set in London (Tennyson is a Londoner) and would he show me his favourite part of London? ... We must have walked ten miles that afternoon in the drizzle without an umbrella. He said he would show me Highgate Cemetery, and a few days later said "Penrose". Penrose is a character I never would have written had Tennyson not said what he did.'

German Skerries

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's play German Skerries is a portrait of life in industrial Teesside in the North of England in the 1970s. It won the 1977 George Devine Award, and was first performed at the Bush Theatre, London, on 25 January 1977.

The play's action is set during the summer of 1977, and takes place, according to a note in the script, 'on an area of rough land known as South Gare at the entrance of the River Tees'. It is a popular birdwatching spot, and this is what brings together the 23-year-old Jack Williams, who works for British chemical manufacturing company ICI, and the 59-year-old Martin Jones, who is a primary school teacher. Jack, spurred on by his wife Carol, has applied for a technical course that will lead to promotion as a plant manager. In the course of a fortnight, the play plots the changing lives of its characters as they try to work out how to live, and of a community in which a thriving steel industry poses a threat to the natural environment.

The Bush Theatre premiere was directed by Chris Parr and designed by Miki van Zwanenberg, with Paul Copley as Jack, John Normington as Martin, Mark Penfold as Michael and Caroline Hutchison as Carol.

A new production was staged at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, on 3 March 2016, in an Orange Tree Theatre/Up in Arms co-production in association with Reading Rep. It was directed by Alice Hamilton and designed by James Perkins, with George Evans as Jack, Howard Ward as Martin, Henry Everett as Michael and Katie Moore as Carol. The production subsequently toured the UK.

Holes in the Skin

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's play Holes in the Skin is about a group of troubled teenagers, and their equally disturbed adult counterparts, struggling to connect with one another on a deprived housing estate in North Yorkshire. It was first performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre on 13 June 2003.

The play begins in a council house in Stokesley, North Yorkshire. Fifteen-year-old Kerry and her mum Hazel have recently moved to the estate. Kerry hates it. She also hates Dennis, Hazel’s slimy new boyfriend. When she meets Luke, an ex-offender and heroin addict, in the playground, a spark of something is ignited between them. They are soon joined by Luke’s bullish older brother, Ewan, who temporarily diverts Kerry’s initial affections. Seeing her chance to punish Dennis for molesting her, Kerry asks Ewan to rough him up as punishment. However, when Ewan beats Dennis to death and Kerry provides Luke with a false alibi, it seems all their freedoms are at stake. The only person who can offer them shelter is local woman Freya, mother to 21-year-old Dominic. But it’ll take more than a change of scene to solve their problems.

The premiere production at Chichester Festival Theatre was directed by Simon Usher and designed by Anthony Lamble. The cast was Sarah Cattle, David Hounslow, Jane Hazlegrove, Andrew Sheridan, Daniel Abelson, Marion Bailey, Jamie Parker and Peter Sproule.

Jonah and Otto

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman’s Jonah and Otto is a play for two actors exploring a fleeting moment of connection between very different men struggling to find the courage to continue. It was first performed in The Studio at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, on 12 March 2008.

The play is set in a secluded public garden in a seaside town on the south coast of England. Otto Banister, 62, is a former clergyman suffering from acute loneliness. A chance encounter with a young man, Jonah Teale, who is trying his best to look after his six-week-old baby daughter, leads to an unexpected bond between the two men. Over the course of a single day they open their hearts to each other, sharing their solitude and unfolding their secrets. They disagree with each other about women, about lust and about guilt. They question the power of magic, of redemption and the price of freedom. Each comes to see himself more clearly through the eyes of the other.

The premiere production was directed by Clare Lizzimore and designed by Paul Burgess, with Ian McDiarmid as Otto and Andrew Sheridan as Jonah.

The play was revived at the Park Theatre, London, in October 2014 in a production directed by Tim Stark, with Peter Egan as Otto and Alex Waldmann as Jonah.

Making Noise Quietly

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's trilogy of short plays, Making Noise Quietly, explores the devastating impact of war on ordinary lives. It was first performed at the Bush Theatre, London, on 26 June 1986.

In the first play, Being Friends, two young men meet by chance in a field at Oxen Hoath, Kent, in July 1944. Oliver Bell is a conscientious objector, spending the war working on a farm; Eric Faber is a roaming artist, uninhibited by his homosexuality. As doodlebugs fly overhead, they talk of the war and its morality, and an intense bond forms between them.

In the second play, Lost, Geoffrey Church, a young naval Lieutenant, visits the home of May Appleton in Redcar, Cleveland, in June 1982. He has come to inform her that her son Ian has been killed in action in the Falklands.

The third play, Making Noise Quietly, is set in August 1986 in the Black Forest in south-west Germany. Helene Ensslin, a German Jewish woman and concentration camp survivor, plays host to a brutish British squaddie, Alan Tadd, and his autistic stepson, Sam. Alan, haunted by his experiences in the Falklands, has been abandoned by his wife, and takes out his violent, inarticulate feelings on the son, whom she also left behind, with cruel beatings. As a result the traumatised Sam now communicates only with feral screeches and by writing words on his arm. Yet beyond the violence both the man and the boy clearly care for each other deeply, and Helene attempts to break the cycle of anger and abuse.

The Bush Theatre premiere was directed by John Dove and designed by Kenny Miller. The cast was Jonathan Cullen, Ronan Vibert, Jean Boht, Jonathan Coy, Helen Ryan, Paul Copley and Daniel Kipling.

The trilogy was revived by the Oxford Stage Company at the Whitehall Theatre, London, on 14 April 1999 after touring to Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Edinburgh. It was directed by Deborah Bruce and designed by Anthony MacIlwaine. The cast was John Lloyd Fillingham, Peter Hanly, Eleanor Bron and Philip Dowling.

It was revived again at the Donmar Warehouse, London, on 19 April 2012 in a production directed by Peter Gill and designed by Paul Wills. The cast was Ben Batt, Susan Brown, Jordan Dawes, Sara Kestelman, John Hollingworth, Matthew Tennyson, Lewis Andrews, Jack Boulter and Ethan Hammer.


Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's play Mud is his earliest full-length play (although it was first staged shortly after the play he wrote subsequently, The Natural Cause). Mud was first performed under the title Taking Stock at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 25 August 1974.

The play is set on the North Yorkshire moors near Whitby, over the course of one very hot August. A group of lonely people converge on a ‘rough and barren’ patch of moorland. George Hardcastle, recently retired and grieving for his wife, has come on holiday to fish. Harold Pike, son of the local squire, has come to shoot. Alan Todd and Pauline Swailes have come to escape prying eyes. Hopes, dreams and fears play out as RAF fighter planes tear across the sky.

The premiere production was directed by Chris Parr, and it was performed by John Normington, Ian Marter, Brian Deacon, Susie Blake and Gerald James.

The Natural Cause  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's play The Natural Cause is a dark and disturbing portrait of mental illness, and its effects on a young family. It was first performed at the Cockpit Theatre, London, on 27 May 1974. Although written after his earlier play Mud, The Natural Cause was Holman's first full-length play to be staged.

A stage direction at the start of the play states that ‘The play is an autopsy. It should take place in a mortuary on a white tiled floor.’ The dead body of Barry Jackson is wheeled in and a pathologist begins his examination as Lyn Jackson, Barry’s mother, recalls what Barry was like as a child. The action proceeds in flashback, with Barry and his pregnant wife Mary on Brighton beach. Barry is a bus conductor, but he'd like to drive the bus one day instead. Lyn keeps telling Mary that Barry's not right, and that she should leave him. But Mary chooses to stick with Barry, as his mental deterioration has frightening consequences.

The premiere production was directed by Ron Daniels, and was performed by Natasha Pyne, Nicholas Ball, George Sweeney, Derek Thompson, Maureen Sweeney and Peter Maycock.

Other Worlds  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's play Other Worlds is a historical drama set in an eighteenth-century fishing community on the isolated North Yorkshire coast, during the time of a threatened invasion by France. It was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 6 May 1983.

The play is set near the village of Fylingthorpe and the small town of Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Yorkshire coast, in July 1797, and (in Act Two) twenty years earlier. When a boat is wrecked off the coast during a ferocious storm, the locals fear that it signals the start of a long-expected French invasion – and a gorilla found wandering on the beach is taken for a French spy. Simmering beneath the unrest and paranoia is a decades-old feud between the local fishing and farming communities, fuelled by suspicion and class rivalry, and a deep-rooted fear of the unknown.

The premiere production was directed by Richard Wilson, and performed by Paul Copley, Paul Luty, Anita Carey, John Holmes, Rosemary Leach, Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Lesley Dunlop and Peter O’Farrell.

Outside the Whale

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

George Orwell wrote that to be inside the whale, like Jonah, ‘is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought.’ Holman’s play shows Orwell outside the whale, in squalor and poverty and hunger. It is a fictional account of the time Orwell spent living as a homeless person, which would later provide material for his essay The Spike and his first book Down and Out in Paris and London.

The play first shows Eric Blair — George Orwell’s real name — as the budding author, collecting books from his publisher’s warehouse to give as Christmas presents, and then finds him three years earlier dressed as a tramp, breaking into a hen-hut for shelter and living in the intolerable conditions of a workhouse. Outside the Whale is a distressing and moving account of his experiment and the people he meets, whose lives are far from comfortable.

Outside the Whale was first produced in 1976 at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.

Picture of Robert Holman

Robert Holman was born in 1952. He was awarded an Arts Council Writers' Bursary in 1974, and since then has spent periods as resident dramatist with the National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon- Avon.

His plays include The Natural Cause (Cockpit Theatre, 1974); Mud (Royal Court Theatre, 1974); Outside the Whale (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 1976); German Skerries (Bush Theatre, 1977, for which he won the George Devine Award); Other Worlds (Royal Court Theatre, 1983); Today (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1984); The Overgrown Path (Royal Court Theatre, 1985); Making Noise Quietly (Bush Theatre, 1986); Across Oka (Royal Shakespeare, 1988); Rafts and Dreams (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 1990); Bad Weather (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1998); Holes in the Skin (Chichester Festival Theatre, 2003); and Jonah and Otto (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 2008).

He has also written a novel, The Amish Landscape (1992). In 2010 he collaborated with David Eldridge and Simon Stephens on A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, which premiered at the Lyric, Hammersmith.