REVIEW: A Breakfast Of Eels, Print Room At The Coronet ✭✭✭✭

A Breakfast Of Eels at The Print Room
A Breakfast Of Eels. Photo: Nobby Clark

A Breakfast of Eels
The Print Room at the Coronet
26 March 2015
4 Stars

“I was going to say something about London, but have I? And the courage it can take to behave responsibly and well. I was going to write about what it is to be a man, and about money. Have I done any of these things and more? As history is the judge of almost everything, so history is the judge of plays and will be of this one.”

These are the words of playwright Robert Holman discussing his new play, A Breakfast Of Eels, which, in a production directed by Robert Hastie, is having its premiere at The Print Room at the Coronet. He is right about history. Definitively answering the questions he poses, though, may require other productions of his play.

Hastie appears to have formed specific views about the relationships between the two characters in the play. Whether those views are correct, though, seems up for debate.

The programme thumb-sketches the play in this way:

“In the haze of a late summer in a London garden, the apples have all fallen to the ground. It is the day of Daddy’s funeral, and two orphans find themselves suddenly alone, with nobody to cling to but each other.”

When the play opens, the two characters, Penrose and Francis are preparing for the funeral of Penrose’s father. Penrose is 21 and Francis is 35. They both refer to the deceased man as “Daddy”, so the natural, but incorrect, assumption is that they are brothers. Penrose seems emotionally immature and very fey; Francis appears made of more manly fibre. But both have a clear and strong bond and it is natural to view Francis as the protector of Penrose.

Francis insists that Penrose dress for Daddy’s funeral and Penrose obeys eventually, wearing his mourning gear and listening to Gluck on his headphones: “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” to be specific, one of the most beautiful and haunting songs ever written about the torment of grief following the death of a lover. A curious choice.

But, then, as the play develops, Penrose proves to be curious in many respects. He tries to gift the ancestral manor, his inheritance where he and Francis live, to Francis together with a small fortune in cash. He clings, like a limpet mine, to Francis’ every word and deed, but, simultaneously asks probing questions and goes hunting for clues about his past and the things which are important to him. Penrose seems to infuriate Francis – the indulged, petulant, extremely camp, emotionally volatile, posh boy appears the polar opposite of the uneducated, green-fingered, emotionally crippled, and working class Francis. They banter, battle, and bond over the course of five Acts, and both are changed, not necessarily in ways they understand.

Penrose is obsessed about his own awkwardness and unattractiveness, even though he seems neither. He has taken ballet classes and is attractive enough to garner the interest of the unseen, but rich, Cordelia. Why does Penrose have these self -esteem issues? And what does he want from Francis and Francis from him?

Holman’s play doesn’t necessarily answer these questions. The text is like a huge tapestry – there are many elements sewn into it: moments of silence, of banality, of revelation, of humour, of intense longing, of possibility, of heartbreak, of examination, of acceptance, of desolation. Quite a lot of the dialogue is lyrical, evocative. But there is a shimmering through-line of unspoken hurt and non-alignment which positively aches.

What is the central bond? Are they “brothers”, in the sense that they have come to love and depend upon each other in that fraternal way, a relationship tolerated, perhaps encouraged, by Daddy? Is Penrose secretly in love with Francis or Francis with Penrose but each is afraid to speak on the topic? Is there a deep, mutual unspoken love between them which will never come to fruition because they will not face their feelings? Or is there something else, not so easy to spot?

Hastie’s direction of the play does seem to plump for the notion that their love is mutual and unspoken and therefore will never be realised. Penrose’s camp sensibilities and mannerisms suggest it throughout; in the penultimate scene, Hastie has Francis look at Penrose in a way which suggests strongly that he does love Penrose and is horrified he will lose him to Cordelia. Holman’s published text makes no reference to this look. It has come from the rehearsal room.

What Penrose is saying at the point where Francis looks at him in his frank, revealing way is this:

To love. To be loved. Difficult things.
To be a pupil. To be a teacher. To learn. Difficult things.
To listen. To change. To be better.
To be responsible for another person. A difficult thing, Francis.
It’s a mighty thing, to be a parent.”

These words come after a section where Penrose is questioning Francis about whether it is part of being a man to know how to love and to let yourself be loved. So, especially as played out in this production, the thought immediately comes that the two are talking, almost in code, about their own love for each other, that Penrose is seeking to position Francis to declare himself.

But that is not the only possible meaning.

One of Holman’s gifts as a writer is that he can write a scene which appears to be about one thing, works entirely seen that way, but which has different, other meanings on reflection. Sometimes his dialogue sounds odd, because the point is not what is said but what is unsaid. Situation and character can crystallise meaning of even the tritest words.

There is a moment at the end of Act Two, where Penrose gathers up a picnic blanket, and the gift which Francis has discarded (to which a single balloon has attached) and silently leaves Daddy’s study. The beautifully lit scene immediately evokes a well known image from the world of Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin. Later, Penrose says his prayers and he and Francis play with sticks. Francis even admits to an almost Eeyore perspective on life. It may just be co-incidence – especially as the text makes no reference to these matters.

What is intriguing about this is that the delight of the Pooh Bear stories was contrasted in real life by the response of A A Milne’s son, the inspiration for Christopher Robin, to the legacy his father left him. Similar issues arise in A Breakfast For Eels: Penrose (the Christopher Robin here) doesn’t want the estate Daddy leaves him and resents the fact that nothing is left to Francis.

Daddy issues dominate the play. When it starts, Daddy has just died and Penrose is listening to Gluck. Penrose clearly relies upon Francis as a father figure, even if it is wrapped up in the “brothers” concept. There is a specific discussion about hand holding, an admission from Francis that he used to hold Penrose’s hand when he asked. Then there is Francis’ special relationship with Penrose’s mother and Penrose’s knowledge of and probing about that relationship. After an incident with Cordelia, Penrose loses the chance to become a father himself and in the aftermath of that experience, while Francis is retreating into the blackness of depression, as snow falls over his shivering body on the grounds of the family estate, Penrose carefully and lovingly fixes his clothing, makes him warm and, in a pure acapella, soothes him with “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice”.

Whatever may be the case about the A A Milne suggestions, there is no question that Holman intends a symmetry between the opening and closing scenes. At the outset, the question is “Whose sons are these?”. At the end, it seems more to be “Who was the father?” Literally and metaphorically? Perhaps.

Ambiguity is the key to this play – that much seems clear.

Holman’s writing is spare, terse on occasion. Some episodes here go on for too long. While it is not indulgent writing, it is risky in many ways. A long sequence where the two men read in silence is both fascinating and slightly bizarre. There is not much that is conventional about Holman’s approach here, no bad thing.

Hastie’s production is beautiful to look at, simple and ethereal. Ben Stones’ design is economical but arresting, and he creates a sense of fallen, faded grandeur for the family home very cleverly. But the feel of the outdoors is also wonderfully evoked, and the scenes involving the extremes of Mother Nature are marvellous. Nicholas Holdridge’s lighting design is phenomenally effective, haunting and tangibly affecting. When Penrose is waxing lyrical about the beauty and possibility of London, you feel you are on Parliament Hill with him, seeing what he can see.

Andrew Sheridan (Francis) and Matthew Tennyson (Penrose) do precisely what Hastie asks of them, with verve, energy and total commitment. They complement each other perfectly, and the gradual changes in each over the course of the play are finely judged. Each actor has moments of real pain, real anxiety, beautifully nuanced and finely judged.

Holman wrote the parts with Sheridan and Tennyson in mind. It will be interesting to see what other actors make of the dynamics and motivations and inner thoughts of these two characters. But on the basis of this production, Holman’s questions can be answered:

Yes, he has written about London. Specifically about the reluctance of Londoners to appreciate what they have and to inquire or dig deeply into the lives of other Londoners, even those very close to them. He has also written about the different sorts of Londoners and the impact money can have on the lives of Londoners. He has written about courage – both Penrose and Francis displays lots of courage, of different kinds. And he has written about the need to take responsibility and to behave properly. Certainly, he has written about what it is to be a man and what responsibilities and rewards come with that role.

This is a complex and absorbing play. It requires real attention but it repays that attention tenfold. It is an intense meditation on London, love, and men who love. Both Penrose and Francis love – the poetic mystery concerns who, and why, they love.

A Breakfast Of Eels runs at The Print Room until April 11, 2015

Share via
Send this to a friend