How to Hold Your Breath

Our critics rating: 
Average press rating: 
Wednesday, 11 February, 2015
Review by: 
Mark Shenton

The Royal Court used to be the place you ran to for the best new plays in town. Now it's a place you too often want to run away from. And here, as if on cue, is a play all about running away, as a woman takes off - with her pregnant sister - in flight from her life and her personal demons, including quite possibly the Devil himself, after a one-night stand with a mystery man (who mistakes her for being a prostitute and offers payment) leaves her with a strange rash on her chest.

In a kind of reverse Dr Faustus, instead of a man selling his soul to the devil, here there's a devil who attempts to buy the soul of a woman. There's also a dogged librarian figure, who keeps popping up with self-help manuals to address particular situations in her life.

This is a bleak, apocalyptic vision of a woman in various kinds of professional and personal crises, as the world around her - the banks, oil supplies and more - start imploding. It's not comfortable viewing, but playwright Zinnie Harris doesn't make it very plausible, either.

It's not a patch on Botho Strauss's Big and Small, which was similarly about a woman on a personal odyssey that Cate Blanchett led a production of at the Barbican in 2012. But the magnificent Maxine Peake reaches deep into her soul to make the character here both haunted and haunting.

It's a performance that partially redeems a difficult night. There's also handsome support, in every sense, from Michael Shaeffer as her malign suitor, as well as strong work from Christine Bottomley as her sister and Peter Forbes as the insistent and itinerant librarian.


"The play, which basically shows once-comfortable capitalists put into the position of refugees, feels as it were illustrating a thesis rather than exploring a conflict."
Michael Billington for The Guardian

"Vicky Featherstone’s production does justice to the twisted humour of the writing. Yet the play, in its epic ambition, staggers under the weight of its overwrought symbolism."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

"This play ends up posing more questions about its own structure than about the politics of a Europe which, in the Big State lie of ‘never-never’ subsidies, has been all too ready to accept money from the dark side."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail

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