Maxine Peake is a great young actress. Maxine Peake, now she’s shed the girth she sported as Twinkle in Dinnerladies, is a lithe and lovely young actress with a gamine haircut and both the features and stage presence to remind you of a young Julie Walters. Maxine Peake has a television profile Olivia Colman might envy, and a range of career choices which seem deservedly limitless.

What, then, she is doing in this impenetrable piece of morbid wank by Zinnie Harris is anyone’s guess.

Peake plays a researcher interviewed for a grant after a one-night stand with a ‘demon lover’ stranger. She develops a spreading rash, a lingering debt of 45 Euros, and is impelled to cross Europe with her duller pregnant sister by train and boat to reach Alexandria where further academic honours await. On the journey, Europe goes into economic meltdown and after a catalogue of surreal disasters from which even Candide could not bounce back and for which a creepily pedantic librarian offers an endless shelf of self-help books, she slides off Chloe Lamford’s adeptly tilted set to drown on a migrant boat in the Adriatic.

So yes, Zinnie, we get it. Even the dullards who skulked at the back of Eng. Lit. flicking spit balls with rulers know this is a parody of Faustus: the stranger is Mephistopheles, the librarian is Chorus, the board of the grant-issuing body are The Scholars and the sister a combination of Good and Evil Angel … but I didn’t really follow the clunking political satire of the disintegration of Europe and reverse mass migration, nor the geography because when you’re expected there in two days you don’t generally head for the Adriatic on the way from Berlin to Alexandria.

I hadn’t seen any of Zinnie Harris’s earlier plays but on the strength of this, I don’t think she’s the new Stoppard.   From her odd sense of travel geography and total ignorance of Expedia, I don’t think she’s the new Judith Chalmers either.

So what you’re left with are some five star performances in a two star play: Peake is compelling to watch, whether she’s writhing with convincingly devilish Michael Shaeffer or sparring with sibling Christine Bottomley she has a clear-eyed determination and connection with the audience which is expressive, lucid and inviting.

Just a shame this feels like a first year essay on symbolism rather than a cracking good play.

 

As a bit of a post-script and in the interests of balance, here’s a tumblr piece which Michael Shaeffer tweeted last night.  It reads like more undergraduate ramble, but presents a reasoned argument that the critics may not have ‘got’ what How To Hold Your Breath is all about.  But whose fault is that?