The six month long Jamie Lloyd led Pinter at the Pinter season has continued to be a completist’s dream and having reviewed the four initial strands of the season (see here) I was keen to follow up by seeing the rest. A couple of days after Christmas I found myself at Pinter 5 and Pinter 6 which were a welcome diversion from the sugary excesses of the season.
Pinter 5 was an especially bleak triple bill directed by Patrick Marber and featuring Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves. The Room was Pinter’s first play and I think it showed, though Horrocks as housewife and drudge Rose was good enough to paper over some of the cracks. The first half of the play was virtually a monologue as she prattled on uttering inanities and repeating herself, trying to draw a response from her taciturn spouse (Graves). Various visitors came and went, there was an explosion of violence and everything pretty much went back to how it was at the start. Deep and meaningful or pretentious tosh? – I was left in two minds. The other lengthy piece was called Family Voices in which Horrocks was a mother attempting to communicate with the son who has left home. Originally a radio play it betrayed its origins in lengthy monologues and a static production the highlight of which was Luke Thallon as the son. Sandwiched between these was a funny but inconsequential short piece Victoria Station about a somewhat creepy cabdriver (Graves – very good) and his control (Colin McFarlane). This was probably the weakest set of plays in the season though I would say that it was the thin material rather than the performances and direction which let things down.
By contrast Pinter 6 was probably the most consistently successful grouping. Consisting of two pieces Party Time and Celebration this was a scathing and entertaining pairing of plays about the horrors of the nouveau riche, the power of money and what might be termed the politics of self-interest. Star names this time round included John Simm, Celia Imrie, Ron Cook, Phil Davies and Tracey Ann Oberman (the rest of the nine strong cast were no slouches either). Party Time takes place in an exclusive club whose members are smug, self-satisfied and deeply unpleasant. They muse on how to keep out the riff – raff who are engaging in civil unrest. Celebration, Pinter’s final play, also contrasts the haves and have nots. Set in “the most expensive restaurant in town” three couples dine and display their philistinism in an overt blast of tacky glitz and uniformed opinion. These are deeply nasty people and the production skewers them with relish. Contrasted with them is the apparently culturally connected waiter of Abraham Popoola who, fittingly, gets the last word. Both plays were performed with relish and still stand as incisive satires of life in the twenty first century.
And so, just recently, I wound up this epic of play going at the last production of the season. Here’s my full review:
Jamie Lloyd’s marathon Pinter at the Pinter season has reached the home straight with a pairing of two of the writer’s earliest plays A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter. As ever the casting and staging are impeccable and these perfectly formed short pieces pack an emotional wallop which far exceeds their brevity. They are both tellingly funny yet distressingly harrowing and neatly summarise so many of the themes present in the other works performed throughout the last six months.
A Slight Ache is definitely the more “difficult” of the pairing. It started life as a radio play and indeed a recording studio setting makes the piece’s lineage abundantly clear. An unnamed actor and actress are seated in front of microphones and reading the lines of a bourgeois couple Edward and Flora. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the recording studio is at odds with the scene being evoked in the radio play. We learn that they are breakfasting in their sunny garden on the longest day of the year and it is evident that their mundane small talk and clipped accents are meant to parody the likes of Coward or Rattigan – the establishment playwrights against whom the late 50’s so-called angry young men were reacting. This ostensibly domestic idyll is invaded by a wasp which gets into the marmalade and is somewhat sadistically killed. From this point on darker tones begin to dominate and we gradually realise the couple’s dissatisfaction with their lives and each other. Their peace is further shattered by a sinister silent match seller whom Edward insists on inviting into the house. We wonder if he is to suffer the same fate as the wasp but instead his presence fully exposes the couple’s insecurities and as they project their fears and desires onto him what starts as a slight ache in Edward’s eye becomes full blown paranoia and, perhaps, insanity.
John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan are on top form in this piece. Their middle class respectability is quickly eroded and exposes their characters for the hollow shams that they are. Flora’s sexual frustration is made manifest by her apparently simple references to the abundant vegetation in her garden while Edward’s social and political inadequacies result in him delivering a lengthy monologue first with false bonhomie and ultimately with him a whispering wreck on the floor. Pinter gives the man the rather more overtly dramatic arc and Heffernan seizes the moment with alacrity. His outward attempts to offer the match seller hospitality (has a drinks list ever sounded more hilarious?) are undercut by his nervy body language. Tellingly the character wears a belt AND braces – clearly he is someone who likes to minimise risk. Whelan proves to be a dab hand with some of the Foley techniques (live sound effects) used in radio recordings. The focus of the couple’s projections, the match seller is all the more sinister for not being seen/heard until… but that would be to spoil the ending.
Matches are a motif which also crops up in the second play of the evening. One of Pinter’s most celebrated pieces, The Dumb Waiter concerns a couple of hitmen killing time while awaiting instructions in a dank Birmingham basement. It opens with one of the writer’s infamous pauses… perhaps lasting three minutes or more during which Ben (the senior partner) stoically reads a newspaper and Gus (his accomplice) fiddles with his shoes, paces nervously and repeatedly tries to flush the offstage toilet. They find an envelope with twelve matches in it – the sinister resonances from the first play are instantly foregrounded though, strangely this element is then left hanging.
Ben and Gus are a classic comedy cross-talking double act. They are also reminiscent of the bickering tramps in Godot or John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction – I’d be intrigued to know whether Tarantino took this piece as an influence. However, instead of protracted discussions about hamburgers, here the talk is of quintessentially British cups of tea and a stale Eccles cake. Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer as the hitmen are nothing short of superb and form a totally winning combination with spot on timing. Freeman is all nervous tics and relentless questioning; Dyer is apparently more laid back but as the play progresses he shows us other dimensions to the character vainly trying to assert his negligible authority and nervously fluttering his fingers (Oliver Hardy?). The more exasperated the pair become, the funnier the situation grows, especially when the dumb waiter itself gets in on the action. Rather like the bee and the match seller in the first play, this small service lift invades the protagonists’ space and causes somewhat of a crisis. The written demands for food coming from above become increasingly exotic and an attempt to “appease the Gods” with Gus’s meagre picnic are firmly rebuffed. The dumb waiter, or rather whoever is operating it, controls the fate of both men. As it repeatedly crashes downwards in noisy guillotine- like fashion it effectively causes a crisis in the hitmen’s relationship and simmering antagonism between the pair boils over into a terrifying climax. As they prepare to carry out the job for which they were hired …. But, again, to reveal this would spoil the ending.
I have admired Soutra Gilmour’s season design throughout and once again she does not disappoint. Both the radio studio and basement room are very well realised and the monochromatic scheme used in the second play (emphasised by the costume design and moody lighting) helps to emphasise the late 1950s setting. There is also a very claustrophobic feel to the production stressing that hell really can be the people closest to us. Jamie Lloyd himself directs with an assurance that demonstrates his command of Pinter’s body of work. If I was left somewhat puzzled and frustrated by A Slight Ache that may be because the second play was so keenly anticipated. I was not disappointed and The Dumb Waiter ends this masterful season on an absolute high.*
This final piece was the cherry on top of the icing on top of a very rich cake that has been the Pinter at the Pinter season. An embarrassment of theatrical riches has been marked by consistency and innovation and some glorious casting coups. The highlights have been Antony Sher in One For The Road, David Suchet and Russell Tovey in The Collection, Tamsin Grieg in A Kind Of Alaska, the entire company in Celebration and last but not least the Freeman/Dyer double act in The Dumb Waiter. The announced coda to the season is a new production of Betrayal starring Tom Hiddlestone – I fully intend to be there.