Holes on stage  

Adam Penford, Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse, has a passion for storytelling. As he prepares to bring a much-loved story about friendship and doing the right thing to the stage, he shows our imaginations ensure there are no barriers to bringing great tales to life.

For the 1.5 million-plus people who have bought the book and the thousands more who have seen the film, Holes is something special.

The story of Stanley Yelnats who is sent to a labour camp in the boiling hot desert for a crime he didn’t commit has taken people into a world where young people band together in a bid to cope with the heat, dust, emotion and fear of being in such an inhospitable environment.

Each day he and his fellow young inmates have to dig a hole five feet by five feet while dodging dangerous desert-dwelling creatures plus the fearsome Warden and her two villainous cronies. But is there more to the task? Does the Warden have a sinister plan in mind, and will Stanley and his new friends find out what it is?

Enter Adam Penford who was enchanted by the novel and decided he wanted to bring it to life in a new form. He recalled: “I read the book many years ago and just fell in love with it. That was about 15 years ago and I thought it would be amazing as a stage production, but had not really been done in the UK before.”

What he did discover was a stage adaptation which he managed to get permission to produce at Nottingham Playhouse in 2018 and which proved to be hugely successful.

Fast forward two years and it is going to be the next production from the rebranded Children’s Theatre Partnership which tours bold, ambitious and imaginative theatre for young people.

And those three adjectives definitely define Holes which, with its setting and plot, is not the easiest story to transform into a theatrical production. Adam said: “The first question that anyone asks us is ‘how are you going to do the holes?’ which is complicated on stage. Luckily that is why it works so well. You have to do it in a creative and a theatrical way. I won’t reveal how we do it, but it does require the audience to use their imagination which is one of the great things about theatre.

“It has also got some amazing characters. When you meet young people, they remember all the characters and certain incidents that happen in the story. They like people such as our anti-hero Stanley Yelnats, which is spelled the same frontwards and backwards, his friend Zero who doesn’t say anything and people think he is stupid, and the Warden who rules the camp with an iron fist. There are some really colourful characters, so it makes it a real joy for actors to get their teeth into.”

Behind the plot are also some really strong themes and Adam is keen to stress that while Holes may feature a lot of young characters, everyone can identify with it. “What is amazing about the story is that it has a moral message about friendship and being true to yourself, but doesn’t ram it down the audience’s throat or patronise, which is why both the novel and the play are loved by adults as well as young people. It has a profound message, but it wears it very lightly.”

“Anybody can enjoy it. When we first produced it at Nottingham Playhouse, we had people as young as five all the way up to 105 seeing it. They loved it. It is funny, it is moving, it is theatrical, and it has something for everybody.”

And now he is relishing the chance to take the production out on the road across the UK to share it with the rest of the country.

This passion to share stories with all ages stems right back to the very first time he entered an auditorium to see a show. Adam recalled: “My first theatrical experience was going to the Nottingham Playhouse pantomime aged 5. I am a Nottingham boy born and bred and that is when I fell in love with the art form. There is something very democratic about it. You don’t need to know anything about the rules. It is not elitist. That is why I love it as an artform.”

And family theatre has been a key part of his working life which included a stint as associate artist at Polka Theatre which aims its work at a young audience. When it comes to pinning down why he enjoys it, Adam is quite clear. “It requires you to be very imaginative as a director because you will use music and movement and puppetry and all these different devices of theatre coming together. Theatre is inherently a collaborative artform and draws all these threads together.”

And that is why he is so excited about Holes because it appeals to everyone. He said: “It is definitely not just for young people. The reason the production is so successful with such a wide audience is that it captures the element of danger that the novel manages to convey. These boys are digging holes and doing manual labour in 100-degree heat with rattlesnakes, venomous yellow-spotted lizards and a warden who is ruthlessly trying to get at something.”

“It also has adult themes and it feels like there is genuinely something at stake, so when the audience watch it, they do genuinely gasp. At the end, they really applaud because they have been on the boy’s side.”

Holes is on UK tour in 2020. See holesonstage.co.uk for dates and venues. 

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