Review – Pinter Seven, Pinter at the Pinter Season, A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2nd February 2019

Pinter SevenWith the glorious memories of Company earlier that afternoon still zinging in our heads, it was time to return to the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for a very different form of entertainment for the evening. We’d seen most of the previous Pinter at the Pinters – unfortunately we had to miss 3 and 4 because of travel commitments – but they’d all been of a pretty high standard, with Pinter Six’s Party Time and Celebration being the absolute stand-out production of the season so far. How would Pinter Seven’s A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter fare against such illustrious competition?

G WhelanA Slight Ache was written in 1958 and first performed as a radio play in 1959. Flora and Edward are breakfasting in the garden on a hot summer day. After fretting over a wasp and getting confused over shrubs, an old matchseller appears at their back garden gate. His presence disturbs them, because a) they can’t understand why he positions himself there, b) they can’t decide what he’s actually doing (selling matches, obvs), and c) he never says a word, even when they try to engage him in lengthy, abstruse conversations. Eventually they invite him in, and their casual, polite conversation turns to the occasional insult and the downright surreal. Eventually Flora decides the matchseller is called Barnabas, and whilst she and Edward compete for his attention, he remains mute and invisible. At the end of the play, we see the Matchseller for ourselves – and we see that it is Edward, dressed up as a matchseller. Ah-huh.

John Heffernan and Gemma WhelanThis is one of Pinter’s deliberately puzzling little plays, with his recurring themes of false names – Edward doesn’t like it when Flora calls him Edward – false jobs (I bet he isn’t really a matchseller, just as I bet Flora wasn’t a Justice of the Peace and I bet Edward isn’t writing an essay on the Belgian Congo), ridiculous place names (the Membunza Mountain Range, south of Katambaloo, in French Equitorial Africa, which doesn’t exist in real life) and, in this case, pretentious wines (Wachenheimer Fuchsmantel Reisling Beeren Auslese – which does), blindness, (Edward has a slight ache in his eyes) and thinly veiled violence. As usual, you get the sense that the characters are courting danger from outside their immediate environment but are too hardwired in their own behavioural patterns to do anything about it.

John HeffernanPersonally, I didn’t find it a terribly satisfying play; it just doesn’t go far enough to make its point – whatever that may be. I did however enjoy Jamie Lloyd’s production. I thought it was smart to start it as though it were a radio play, being acted by two clipped-vowel BBC actor-types, seated on tall chairs in front of microphones, with an On Air sign distinctly On; and as the play progresses they leave that environment and start occupying the garden breakfast table in your mind, with just the occasional reminder that it is a radio play, such as when Flora treads on top of a tray of gravel to give the aural impression she’s walking up the garden path.

Gemma Whelan and John HeffernanJohn Heffernan’s Edward is an excellent study of a pompous and pernickety man, barely repressing the streaks of violence and anger in his soul. Gemma Whelan’s Flora is straight out of Brief Encounter, with an exquisite vocal turn that’s more 1930s than 50s, trying to make herself attractive for Barnabas whilst fantasising about bathing him; whether that’s like a baby or like a lover, is for you to decide. Well performed, and entertaining, but, for me, missing an edge that is more noticeable in most other Pinter plays.

Gemma WhelanA Slight Ache was really just a curtain-raiser for the long-awaited star-clash of Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer in The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s 1957 two-hander, which features two gangster-type hitmen waiting in a basement for the instructions for their next job. As in A Slight Ache, the outside world encroaches on to their comfortless, although well-organised, little domestic arrangement, with an unruly kettle and an even unrulier toilet in the adjacent room, an envelope containing a dozen matches thrust under the door by hand unknown; and of course, the dumb waiter.

Danny DyerI’ll return to the play in the next paragraph, but let’s just take a minute to respect that curious entity, the dumb waiter. You may not know this, gentle reader, but my parents ran a village pub, and in 1970 the brewery who owned said establishment decided it was time we had a refurbishment. To encourage the early art of pub grub, they installed a dumb waiter that connected our kitchen upstairs to the sink area behind the Saloon Bar. It was a big, heavy contraption. Two thick ropes worked a pulley mechanism that sent this wooden box, with two shelves, up and down between the floors. It rather blew my childish brain that there was part of the building that belonged both upstairs and downstairs. I was fascinated by it, and would happily spend hours pointlessly sending items upstairs and downstairs just because I could. It linked two separate worlds; when you were in the kitchen, you had no idea what was going on behind the bar, and when you were in the bar, you had no idea what was happening in the kitchen. But you could send these enclosed shelves, up and down, as a kind of fact-finding emissary; ever-reliable, sharing the secrets of the seedy underworld and the lofty overworld. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle finally retired from that pub in 1988; but eighteen years on, the dumb waiter still worked as smoothly and as magically as ever.

Dyer and FreemanPinter’s Dumb Waiter comes with a voice tube; much more high-tech than our humble example, and providing an even stronger link from that dingy basement to the outside world. Ben and Gus, the nefarious couple, have no idea it’s there at first; which is why, when it suddenly comes to life, it’s a shock to us all; and the random sequence of food orders, that the guys have absolutely no way of fulfilling, is hilarious in its total pointlessness. But whilst they’re doing their best to please the masters upstairs, Ben also receives his orders for the job that he and Gus are expecting. And although Ben confirms that it’s “the normal method to be employed”, it looks like this will be the last job they do together…

Martin FreemanThe combination of Messrs Freeman and Dyer is something of a Pinteresque dream team. Mr Freeman’s Gus is a nervous, fidgety, inquisitive guy; the type who has to break a silence (and being Pinter, there are plenty of those!), the type who thrives on being reassured. Mr Dyer’s Ben is more laid-back, with the natural authority of superiority and the confidence to wait quietly; it’s he who communicates with the powers that be up above, but it’s also he who sweats the pressure of satisfying the bosses. In civil service terms, Gus is the Administrative Assistant whilst Ben is the Executive Officer.

Freeman and DyerBoth actors lend aspects of their own personalities and style to their characters, so that they’re immensely believable – in a sense you feel that perhaps there’s not a lot of acting required. Mr Dyer, in particular, always has that cheeky, irreverent sparkle in the corner of his eyes, so even when he’s being Proper Menacing, there’s a glint of a Likely Lad in there too. And although there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of menace lurking about the backwaters of this play, it’s performed fully for laughs and the audience recognises it as the crowd-pleaser it’s clearly designed to be. Only 27 performances scheduled for Pinter Seven, so you’d better be quick – it finishes on 23rd February!

D DyerP. S. Pinter Seven was to be the last of the season but that plucky little Tom Hiddleston has popped up with a production of Pinter’s Betrayal, which has now been tacked on to the end to make an unofficial Pinter Eight. This could carry on for ages. I think it’s unlikely we’re going to see this one – I’m very happy with my memories of John Simm in Betrayal in Sheffield in 2012 – and ATG have somewhat cynically whacked up the prices for this new production. One can have too much of a good thing!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Saint George and the Dragon, Olivier Theatre at the National, 2nd December 2017

Saint George and the DragonI saw this marketing poster for Saint George and the Dragon whilst I was idly looking at shows coming up in the next National Theatre season and it really tickled my fancy. The out of place, out of era, aforementioned Saint, glumly tucking into a full English at some greasy spoon. Hardly the stuff of legends, is it? But then as George says in the play, he genuinely is a legend.

SGATD1There are loads of excellent ideas in Rory Mullarkey’s play which has just ended its run at the Olivier, but, to be honest, I’d be surprised if it turned up anywhere else again in the future. In ancient days, when Chaucerian meter was all the rage, a Knyghte y-clept George found himself wandering through the green pastures of Merrie England (or was that a couple of hundred years later) and chanced upon an old man and his daughter, both verray parfit villagers forsooth. We meet the other villagers: Crier, Miller, Smith, Butcher, Healer, Driver, Brewer…. can you guess what services each provided the community? Of course, that’s where our surnames come from. So I have no idea why Mr Mullarkey has called the old man Charles and his daughter Elsa. Presumably his other kids Dave and Wayne were at some crusade or other.

SGATD2Elsa is about to be eaten alive by the local ruler, a Dragon (that’s King Dragon to you) so Charles pleads with George to challenge the Dragon to save his daughter’s life. Unfortunately, George hadn’t had much luck with Dragons recently and refused (most ungallantly) Charles’ beseeching to fight the Dragon to save his daughter. But then George looked in Elsa’s eyes and Bingo! It was love at first joust. George fights the Dragon, and, blow me down with a fire-throwing breath, he defeats him. But just as he’s about to enjoy his well deserved courtly nuptuals, he hears the call of the Brotherhood, and he’s off to fight another quest, leaving Elsa to darn her medieval mittens for centuries to come.

SGATD3I don’t think it matters that I’m telling you the plot, because of the reason I mention in the first sentence of my second paragraph. George comes back in Victorian times, and basically the same thing happens again; then he comes back in today’s era… and basically the same thing happens again. Repetitive? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There’s the nugget of a very clever play in here. The nation needs a knight in shining armour to come and rescue us from the mess we’ve got ourselves into; a character that represents true England – its nobility, its bravery, its courtliness, its generosity of spirit. Against him, the Dragon, who vows to continue his war against George in more subtle, subconscious ways in the future, affecting the minds of the people, encouraging evil and ignobility; selfishness and weakness. You might say the play sticks two fingers up at Brexiteers; I couldn’t possibly comment. At the end of the play George exhorts the townsfolk to join him returning back to the good old days, but, of course, no one wants to go back in time. This is modern England, a land of smartphones and skyscrapers, of Megabowls and watching England lose at football in the pub. You cannot go back.

SGATD4Nice idea. Unfortunately, it’s a very wordy, overlong, and lumpy play. It starts with George’s sub-Anglo-Saxon introduction and, I kid you not, Mrs Chrisparkle had nodded off for forty winks and woken up again before he had finished his opening monologue. There are some excellent moments of comedy, created by the incongruous juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern – rather like that marketing photo on the programme. There’s a very enjoyable scene in the second act where George, who has no clue what football is, finds himself getting absolutely plastered watching an International England match in the pub, and it’s genuinely very funny. George blames England’s poor performance on the fact that the supporters have lost sight of the fact that we are world beaters. Just have belief, and we will win the day. Good luck with that, George.

SGATD5There are some very splendid actors involved in this production who really did put in an awful lot of fine effort. John Heffernan brought great virtue to the role of George, with some lovely comic timing and excellent stage presence. I’d really like to see him in something good. Julian Bleach’s characterisation of the Dragon was very amusing, especially in the first scene as a slimy pantomime villain. Brilliant actors with CV’s as long as your arm, like Gawn Grainger and Jeff Rawle, breathe as much life into the play as possible. And there are some excellent special effects – I loved how the Dragon set fire to his servant Henry’s scroll of Terms and Conditions; although the setting up for the descent of the fiery Dragon’s heads onto the stage, using two wires that slowly came into view, was cumbersome and made the whole thing look very ham-fisted.

SGATD6At 2 hours 50 minutes it has some very long longueurs. My solution – omit a lot of the opening exposition and completely cut out the whole Victorian era episode. It adds nothing to the story and Mr. Mullarkey would still make his patriotic point only far more succinctly. You could probably bring it in at about 2 hours then and it wouldn’t feel anything like as hard going. Overall, it wasn’t too bad; but it wasn’t good either. Faint praise indeed. Can’t win them all!

Production photos by Johan Persson