Theatre review: How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court

The excellent Maxine Peake stands out in a poor play

Royal Court | ★★☆☆☆

Zinnie Harris’ How To Hold Your Breath begins with an intimate encounter. A man is alarmed to find the stranger he slept with isn’t a prostitute. She’s offended by his attempt to pay. It’s a zippy opening that makes the rest of the play feel leaden.
The action shifts uncomfortably between the personal dramas of two sisters and wider political and economic crises engulfing Europe. We encounter pregnancy, miscarriage, a sexually predatory demon who for some reason works for the UN, an omnipresent librarian and problems with the banking system on the way to the play’s crescendo of ground-pounding despair. The themes are so scrambled and mismatched it feels like it was inspired by a random selection of headlines on a slow news day.
Maxine Peake does her Bambi-eyed best as Dana, the older of the two sisters, but the writing never convinces us of the turmoil she acts out with such commitment. Harris’ metaphors manage to be both heavy handed and completely mystifying. In every other scene, the librarian turns up wheeling a bookcase full of self-help volumes relating to whatever quandary the sisters find themselves in (hence the title, How To Hold Your Breath). I found myself craving my own – “How to Stay Awake”.

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