Having really enjoyed Pinters One and Two, we regrettably had to miss out on Three and Four due to other commitments and travelling. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it. Nevertheless, we were back at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for the next two shows in Jamie Lloyd’s innovative and exciting season.
Pinter Five for the matinee then, not before enjoying the Champagne in the Ambassador Lounge which you get as part of the Champagne Package that went with Row D Stalls seats. Given that everything is expensive nowadays (sounding like a grumpy old man) the Champagne Package was excellent value and very enjoyable. I’d recommend it!
So to the matter in hand, and first off, The Room, Harold Pinter’s first play, written and produced in 1957, a bleak one-act drama where the comic fringes lighten the load of the menace that lies beneath. It feels very much a forerunner of his next play, The Birthday Party, with similarities in its setting, characters, violence and other themes. Mrs Rose Hudd prepares a meagre meal for her husband Bert whilst worrying about the cold weather outside and the state of the roads. He has to go out – but says nothing about it – indeed, he says nothing about anything. Landlord Mr Kidd (if he is indeed the landlord) comes to call, to check on the pipes and the plumbing, whilst Mr Hudd takes to his bed. Later, a younger couple, Mr and Mrs Sands, pop by to see if the landlord is in as they want to take a look at a room to rent. Later still, a blind man, Mr Riley, visits Mrs Hudd, calls her Sal (we know her as Rose) and has a message from her father to please come home. Mr Hudd returns, sees them together, talks meaninglessly about his experience in the car, and then beats and kicks Riley into a corner. Maybe he kills him, maybe he doesn’t. Rose is left clutching her eyes, saying that she can’t see. Curtain.
Afterwards, Mrs Chrisparkle said that she enjoyed it, but she wished she knew what it really meant. That’s the trouble with Pinter. The change of name (Rose to Sal), the confusion over the position of Mr Kidd, the inability to see (Riley is blind, Rose can’t see at the end), the menace lurking just under the surface. All these things must mean something. But, equally, they could mean nothing; other than that which is self-evidently acted out on stage. It could simply be a slice of life, a series of unrelated incidents that just happen in the same location and to the same person, and any menace that arises is merely what we perceive. Personally, I think the truth is halfway between the two. There’s some symbolism at work there; however, its meaning is what you make it.
The Hudds’ grisly bare room is effectively brought to life in Soutra Gilmour’s featureless and colourless set, and, as you would expect, Jane Horrocks gives a superb performance as the woman trapped in a featureless, colourless life, never betraying any emotions unless they’re based on fear. Rupert Graves’ sullen and taciturn Bert keeps his own counsel mainly, one feels, because he can’t be arsed to reply to his wife’s inanities. But when he returns and unleashes his violence on the defenceless Riley, the savagery is real. Nicholas Woodeson brings some confused humour to the role of Mr Kidd, whom we feel is hiding more than is revealing and Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi as the Sands create a fascinating power-struggle between themselves whilst still – on the surface at least – remaining polite with their temporary host. Colin MacFarlane’s Riley feels like a lamb to the slaughter from the word go. It’s a tough watch, and at the end you feel disturbed and despondent at the way events turned out. But I guess that’s the point.
After the interval, we’re in for some brilliant light relief. Victoria Station, written in 1982, is a short two-hander between a taxi operator control and Driver 274, out and about somewhere around Crystal Palace. The controller wants him to pick someone up from Victoria Station. But he’s never heard of the place. In fact he seems to be in some existential nightmare where he can’t recognise or understand anything, apart from the fact that he’s fallen in love with the passenger on board. The controller tries all sorts of ideas to get 274 to buck his ideas up – but no avail. In the end the controller closes down the office so that he can meet 274 and maybe go to Barbados on holiday together. Or maybe not.
Played for laughs, with immaculate comic timing and expression by Colin MacFarlane as the controller and Rupert Graves as the driver, this is a much-needed eruption of comedy joy. Given that we’re watching what might well be one man’s descent into loneliness/depression/mental illness/hell, the play could easily be performed with much greater seriousness and gravity; but making it upbeat gives it an additional strength all of its own. I loved it; I thought it was hilarious and ridiculous, without being cruel. As a short play, it deserves to be much better known.
That led us on to our final piece, Family Voices, originally written as a radio play in 1980. Three characters, only called Voices one, two and three, speak of their sense of dislocation and loss. Voice one, a young man, is surviving on his own in some unspecified shared accommodation and speaks what sounds like a letter home; but voice two, whom we presume is his mother, tells us that she never hears from her son. So maybe these letters are never sent, or never received; or maybe they aren’t mother and son at all. Voice three is his father, speaking from the dead: “I have so much to say to you, But I am quite dead. What I have to say to you will never be said.” Those last lines brought a gulp to the throats of both me and Mrs C as we thought of our own dead fathers. Sad and haunting; but also strangely comforting.
Once again Jane Horrocks was riveting as the abandoned mother figure, and Rupert Graves solemn but supportive as the father. Luke Thallon took us on a moving journey as his Voice One character tried to find his way in life but failed. Three related figures with the will to communicate with each other but lacking the ability or the method. I found it very moving.
So with the exception of the fifteen minutes of fun that was Victoria Station, this was a very introspective and hard-hitting programme that took us into some of the darker areas of human existence. Fascinating to experience – and also with some superb performances, Pinter Five continues in the repertory until 26th January.